A Ticket To Ride, and He Don't Care
Michelangelo Antonioni’s preferred version of The Passenger, which he called his “most stylistically mature film,” opened in Europe in 1975 as Professione: reporter and, following its 2005 New York Film Festival showing, is scheduled for a theatrical release on October 28.
Given the director's concerns with narrative liberties and the subjective nature of perception, cinematic flair may tend to obfuscate story in his films -- as indicated by complaints about pretentiousness and dated irrelevancies in, for example, the swinging ‘60s London of Blow-Up. On the heels of Zabriskie Point’s boring audiences and reviewers (except for the finale), only an MGM management shakeup saved The Passenger. Once again, however, the Italian returned to the desert, to extended expressive scenery takes, to metaphysical mystification in a not-quite thriller, and unresolved motivations.
Indeed, in an amazing seven-minute take through a window-grille out into a dusty street fronted by a curving bullring, the film wraps up but the puzzle remains. In this world of high-stakes arms-dealing governments and traffickers, two Africans enter screen-right and one exits left (Jean Baptiste Tiemele), presumably goes into the foreground room and a pistol shot, maybe with a silencer, is or is not heard, as a thirty-seven-year-old man is murdered; or is it a heart attack, rounding off what was officially ruled the cause of a similar, earlier death?
Distant and passive like everyone in the film, David Locke is a TV journalist who does not believe in coincidence and is known for gaining interviews with problematical politicians whom he conservatively does not push to any unwanted conclusions. As the U.S.-educated London reporter, a sleeker and still-unmannered Jack Nicholson listens but talks little, follows paths of minimum resistance, and comes across as detached. Flashbacks indicate the same characteristics in his comfortably stale marriage to Rachel (Jenny Runacre), herself a cold fish involved with an even brutally colder lover (Stephen Berkoff).
Locke Land Rovers through an unnamed desert in search of United Liberation Front rebels. Showing emotion only twice -- striking a rock here and later smashing a red bug (or flower) against a whitewashed wall -- he is talked to by a traveled, lonesomely heartsick “businessman” whom he shortly finds lying dead at their woebegone hotel.
The two Europeans bear enough resemblance that, for no conscious reason other than “see what’s on the other side,” Locke exchanges clothes, belongings and passports and becomes David Albert Robertson (Chuck Mulvehill), while the corpse is the now-dead journalist.
His “talent for observation” leading him to pick out the other’s itinerary, Locke goes to London, to a Munich airport storage locker, to a chapel rendezvous for a weapons sale to revolutionary Achebe (Ambroise Bia), and on to Spanish meetings written in the dead man’s datebook. Satire in Being There, fantasy in The Brother from Another Planet, allow for a man’s silence to be misinterpreted as intelligent communication, but it goes beyond credence that, among others, cautious gunrunners would buy Nicholson’s non-committal smiles.
Perhaps it is surreal dream, after all, for among whorls of Gaudí color, Locke hooks up with a pouty, pliant unnamed Girl (Maria Schneider) whom he had glimpsed in London -- she denies it -- and with whom, “now see[ing] coincidence all around,” he drives a conspicuous convertible towards destiny. The Girl is arguably extraneous, but wife Rachel, meanwhile, and his producer Mark Knight (Ian Hendry) are trying to track down the Robertson they think was the last person to see Locke alive.
All will come together, or full circle, as much as it will, there in that dusty hotel room. A failed incoherent series of shots to some, a treatise on Existential self-re-creation to others, “also a topical . . . political film” to its director, The Passenger is a slippery, provocative work. But as David Cronenberg recently affirmed, man is the sole creature that seeks to find -- indeed, to make -- meaning.
(Released by Sony Pictures Classics; rated "PG.")