Saturday, 8 October 2011

Identity, crisis and coincidence... The Passenger (1975)

"Can I ask you a question, only one, always the
same; what are you running away from?"

Michelangelo Antonioni's The Passenger is a film about identity, coincidence and, possibly, fate. The lead character is a passenger in someone else's life, as he has been with those he has interviewed in his career as a journalist. He's on the run from his own life but is that because he knows his end is both inevitable and imminent?

Beautifully photographed by Luciano Tovi, The Passenger begins in Algiers and takes in London, Munich, Barcelona and southern Spain on its relentless journey. It packs in a huge amount of locations and some amazing buildings including Gaudi's brilliant Casa Milà.

Jack Nichoson is David Locke, a documentary film maker, who takes advantage of the death of a man staying in the same hotel. For reasons we spend the rest of the film trying to fathom, Locke assumes the man's identity and passes off his death as his own. The man, Robertson, turns out to be a gunrunner, supplying arms to one of the factions in the Chad civil war. He leaves behind a diary of meetings that Locke then proceeds to try and fulfil, perhaps driven by some sympathy with their cause.

He is also spurred on by the investigations of former colleague Knight (Ian Hendry excellently-edgy as always) and his estranged wife, portrayed with cool detachment by Jenny Runacre (another 70's icon). Along the way Locke meets an un-named architectural student, played by the magnetic Maria Schneider, simply excellent here as an almost non-actorly actor, natural, very responsive and enigmatic - a perfect match for Jack.

Nicholson gives a memorable performance of intelligence and world-weary complexity. He compliments Antonioni's style perfectly with dryly humorous inventions highlighting the necessary intensity of this conflicted and confused character. Antonioni was impressed with Easy Rider and the related American "new wave" and it's easy to see why he wanted one of the leaders of that generation in this film, a more successful and interesting continuation of his counter-cultural examinations in Zabriskie Point.

There is one horrific sequence where Antonioni uses film of an actual execution. This is deliberately designed to disturb and watching the film for the first time one hoped that it wasn't real. But it was and you have to question the validity of this injection of actuality even at this distance. In the DVD commentary the writer, Mark Peploe, is audibly still upset by this scene.

Whatever the moral and artistic merits, the film is based on these realities and the Chad conflict in question ran for some 40 years. As Peploe says these things happened and are still happening.

Locke and the girl keep meeting appointments but the insurgents do not make them. By now the police are on their trail and there's a growing sense of impending doom.

The film ends with one of the most stunning single takes I've ever seen. In one amazing shot, lasting over six minutes, the camera takes a slow and steady journey from Locke's hotel room out towards the chaos in the street and back to the same room as the characters catch up with each other and the story ends. It took a week to film and is a technical tour de force. A supernaturally quiet and understated ending that highlights the loneliness of death... the casual, matter-of-factness of the inevitable end.

It's a film you have to study carefully as Antonioni takes us through at his own pace, we have to experience his story at the rate he dictates. He needs our patience.

When The Girl asks her singular question sat in the back of Locke's car as they drive south through the country roads, he replies, "Turn your back to the front seat...". She swivels around, throws out her arms, flings her head back and beams as the open road recedes behind them.

It's a great moment and says so much about the film and the lives we all live. Maria is completely in the now, eyes bright and just taking in the full glory of the moment as they pass through a beautiful avenue of sunlit trees...

The Passenger is available at a very reasonable price from Amazon. Great commentary from Jack also included!


  1. Practically, I have not seen anything from the last stage of Antonioni, The Passenger, included. When I was interested in Antonioni, or discovery to him, I just stopped at Zabriskie Point. As you point, is treating its universal themes. In any case, good post, and pointed to a future viewing The Passenger.


  2. Gracias Roy, vale la pena tanto tiempo sola toma solo. Es a la altura de sus 60 películas!