Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 5/21/08 w/ Additional Edits & New Content.
Following a trio of acclaimed, arty films discussing alienation that began with 1960's L'Avventura. Michelangelo Antonioni became one of the new and premier international film directors coming from Italy. Part of the excitement in an era where European cinema took massive attention, Antonioni followed up his alienation trilogy of L'Avventura, La Notte, and L'Eclisse with his first film shot in color entitled Il Deserto Rosso in 1964. Two years later, Antonioni scored his biggest hit to date with 1966's Blow-Up that won several prizes and was a massive hit as it was his first film in the English language. Then in 1970, Antonioni released Zabriskie Point that featured writing contributions from then-unknown playwright Sam Shepard. The film ended Antonioni's winning streak as it received lukewarm reviews while audiences were baffled. Then in 1975, Antonioni returned with his themes of alienation in a film entitled The Passenger.
Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni, The Passenger tells the story of a burned-out journalist who takes the identity of a fellow traveler who has died while taking a journey to North Africa. During the journey, he meets and falls for a mysterious young woman as his journey suddenly takes a strange, dark turn. An original story from Mark Peploe with a script by Peploe, Antonioni, and Peter Wollen, the film is a return of sorts to Antonioni's themes of alienation and exploration as he travels into a different world. Starring Jack Nicholson, Maria Schneider, Steven Berkoff, Ian Hendry, Charles Mulvehill, and Jenny Runacre. The Passenger is a haunting yet ethereal study of alienation and existentialism from the late Michelangelo Antonioni.
Reporting in North Africa for a possible documentary film, David Locke (Jack Nicholson) is in the middle of North African desert trying to find information guerillas which leads to nothing. After his car gets stuck in the desert, he returns to his motel room as he's burned-out and unhappy. When he decides to have a chat with his neighbor named David Robertson (Charles Mulvehill), he goes into his room to find the British businessman dead in his bed. Shocked at what he's seeing, he decides to do something drastic away from his dull world as a journalist. With a ticket to Munich, Germany along with a storage box, Locke decides to switch the pictures of their passports. With Robertson's body taken to Locke's motel room and in Locke's clothes, Locke as Robertson tells the motel manager that David Locke is dead.
The news of David Locke's death has sent shockwaves all over the world of journalism as he leaves behind a wife named Rachel (Jenny Runacre) as Locke wanders around in London and Munich searching for things about Robertson as he finds a document on the creation of a machine gun in his airport storage box. After going into a church, Locke meets with a couple of men who are revealed to be gunrunners as Robertson was giving them documents on machine guns. Yet, things get stranger when those specialists are in danger from the opposing African government. With Locke fleeing to Barcelona to meet Robertson's contacts, Rachel decides to turn to one of Locke’s colleagues in producer Martin Knight (Ian Hendry) to find Robertson on information on Locke's death.
With Locke now in Barcelona, he learns that Knight is looking for him as he finds help in a young architecture student (Maria Schneider). He befriends the young woman who helps him in his adventure as they drive into the countryside and beaches of Spain. Rachel meanwhile, learns about Robertson and his connection to guerilla rebels against an oppressive government. When Rachel receives her husband's belongings, she makes a shocking discovery. Locke and the young woman meanwhile, continuing to try and meet Robertson's contacts as suddenly, he realizes he's on the run from police, gunrunners, and his wife. With the young woman helping him, Locke begins to ponder what he's running away from.
Sticking to Antonioni's theme of alienation, the film is essentially about a man running away from his dreary, dull life in exchange for something dangerous and exciting only to realize he has trapped himself into a situation as similar as the man he's pretending to be. Mark Peploe's story of a man trying to find a sense of escape is true to the films that Antonioni had done in the early 1960s which relates to his theme of alienation. The film also explores several subplots from the perspective of Locke's wife as well as the story that Locke was covering about an African government's conflict with guerilla rebels. Yet, the core story is David Locke's sense of alienation and the young woman he takes on a ride as she helps him confront his loneliness.
The script dialogue created by Peploe, Antonioni, and Peter Wollen includes flashback sequences to help convey the trapped world of Locke as well as a dialogue exchange between Locke and Robertson that also explores themes of existentialism. One noted scene of dialogue is when Locke tells a haunting story about a blind man who regains his sight. The story is eerie yet true to what Locke is going through towards the end of the film as he realizes his own troubles as he has compared himself to the blind man in his story. What follows is an eerie scene that could've been easily scripted but its drama and suspense is heighten by the staging and direction of Michelangelo Antonioni.
Antonioni's direction is truly magnificent in conveying the idea of loneliness while maintaining a sense of atmosphere to the film. Shot in various locations including North Africa, London, Munich, and parts of Spain, the film is about in some ways adventure as David Locke is trying to find something new in his new identity. The locations are truly inspiring as Antonioni creates unique compositions that are dreamlike and fascinating. While the film's pacing in its original 126-minute presentation is slow and elliptical, it's a trademark style of pacing that often works in Antonioni's early 1960s films. Here, because of the long takes and scenery that Antonioni creates, for the average viewer, it's hard to get their attention as one would think that nothing is going on. In fact, a lot is going on. Especially in the film's penultimate shot.
The penultimate, seven-minute, one-take tracking shot reveals a lot in what's going on. What starts out as something simple that involves an old man, a dog walking and such, the camera suddenly moves closer very slowly to emphasize that something is about to happen. What Antonioni does is not to show everyone what is happening but to show a different perspective of what's going on when something that is happening but, not being shown. That sequence alone is a pure example of Antonioni's genius in the way he stages an entire scene, the placing of the camera and its movement, and knowing when not to cut. Antonioni knows how to create suspense and momentum where even though the first two acts tend to be slow and even lean towards pretentiousness. Yet, once it reaches the third act and the themes of alienation and existentialism come into play, it's pay off is truly rewarding. The result is Antonioni at his most solid.
Cinematographer Luciano Tovoli brings some amazing, exterior camera to the film's haunting desert scenes, and the various location settings in Spain. Tovoli's work is exquisite from its intimate, interior lighting display to the wide, depth of field in the film's exterior scenes including a gorgeous shot in Barcelona of Jack Nicholson on waving his arms around against the water of Barcelona. Tovoli's work is truly amazing in every shot of the film. Antonioni and editor Franco Arcalli does some excellent work in the editing despite its sluggish pacing by creating a sense of rhythm and style to maintain the film's tone. Even the use of footage including a filmed execution from the documentary helps to maintain the film's sense of mystery. Art director Piero Poletto and set decorator Osvaldo Desideri does some great work in creating the different hotel rooms for the different locations, particularly the last one in a Spanish town.
Costume designer Louise Stjernsward does some fine work in the film's costume department with the loose look that Locke had to the more refined clothing when he's pretending to be Robertson. The look between Rachel and the Girl is also unique with Rachel wearing posh clothing and the Girl with more loose, casual, contemporary clothing of the times. Sound editors Alessandro Peticca and Franca Silvi do excellent work in capturing the atmospheres of the different locations. The sound editing is at its most powerful during the film's penultimate scene that plays up to its suspense and aura. The film doesn't really have a soundtrack other than Ivan Vandor's score that is essentially an African flute background and Spanish-laden guitars performed plaintively to convey the film's eerie mood.
The cast is filled with some small yet memorable appearances including Narciso Pula and Jean-Baptiste Tiemele as a couple of rogue gunrunners, James Campbell as a witch doctor Locke interviewed in his documentary, Jose Maria Caffarel as a Spanish hotel manager, and noted character actor Steven Berkoff as Rachel's lover. Charles Mulvehill is good in his brief role as David Robertson, the arms dealer who is going through the same existential trapping that David Locke is in only to die suddenly. Ian Hendry is also good as a TV producer trying to find Locke as Robertson while trying to make a tribute film for Locke. Jenny Runacre is excellent as Locke's wife Rachel, a woman concerned about her husband's death and wanting to know the truth only to be part of an investigation of what happened to Locke and the identity of Robertson.
Maria Schneider, who is famous for her work in Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris, gives an amazing performance as the unnamed Girl. While Schneider's unique beauty that wowed audiences in Bertolucci's classic film is still intact. Her performance is startling to watch from her spontaneous persona to how understated she is with Jack Nicholson and everything that's around her. Schneider, who hasn’t been known for a lot of films should at least deserve credit in the fact that there's more to her than her beauty. Then there's the legendary Jack Nicholson in what is truly one of his finest performances. Nicholson's calm, cool, yet eerie performance is wonderfully understated as he rarely goes over the top, with the exception of a scene in the desert. Nicholson's portrayal of a man dealing with identity, alienation, and existentialism is engrossing to watch as it's a performance from him that is rare nowadays as he now hams it up and essentially play himself. In this film, Nicholson's performance is mesmerizing from the first scene he's in to its penultimate finale.
The 2006 Region 1 DVD for The Passenger features a newly-remastered print provided by Jack Nicholson as audiences can finally see the film for the first time on DVD. Presented in high definition and in anamorphic widescreen of the aspect ration of 1:85:1 and Dolby Digital Sound. The DVD features subtitles in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Thai, and Chinese. Also included in the DVD are a few special features. Among them is a trailer for the film for its 2005 theatrical re-release. The DVD also includes two full-length audio commentary tracks.
The first is from Jack Nicholson who reflects on the production of the film as well as the many of the film’s themes and Michelangelo Antonioni. Nicholson, in his relaxed tone, reveals a lot of the production as the man who played David Robertson was actually a friend of Nicholson’s. Many of the shots were largely improvised by Antonioni as Nicholson recalled having a great time working with the famed Italian director. The majority of the film was shot in Spain, notably Almeria and Barcelona while some were shot in North Africa and in London as Nicholson delves into Antonioni’s shooting style.
Nicholson also talks about Maria Schneider, whom he liked a lot as did Antonioni. The only problem Schneider had during the production was a love scene with her and Nicholson where they were supposed to have sex. Schneider, who was known already for Last Tango in Paris, didn’t want to do another graphic nude scene and not be known as a sex symbol. A compromise was made eventually, though Schneider was also dealing with back problems as she was taking painkillers during the filming. Nicholson revealed that during one scene, Schneider was woozy from the effects of painkillers as he had to help her standing up.
Nicholson also talks about various locations including a hotel where a woman in a red swimsuit was shown as he met her again 25 years later. Many of Antonioni’s lack of dialogue and having the camera just capture everything is discussed by Nicholson. Even a chase scene where during the filming of the chase scene. Antonioni lost track of where the cars were as he had no idea what got shot though his camera crew were able to get the shots he needed. Nicholson also goes into great detail over how the 9-minute penultimate shot was made as it’s a superb commentary track.
The second commentary is by screenwriter Mark Peploe and journalist Aurora Irvine. Peploe talks about his memories about the production and how he came up with the idea for the film. He was originally set to direct it while working on another project. Yet, that other project fell apart while Antonioni was interested in Peploe’s story. Shooting occurred in late 1973 with Nicholson getting the part because producer Carlo Ponti wanted a big actor. Nicholson was easy to get though getting Maria Schneider wasn’t at all. Largely due to the fact that she wasn’t sure about working with another Italian director after being overwhelmed with working with Bernardo Bertolucci (Peploe’s future brother-in-law) for Last Tango in Paris. Peploe, with Irvine being an interviewer of sorts, also goes into detail about the film’s technical work and Antonioni’s style. Even with a lot of the film’s political references that relates to the events occurring in the 1970s.
While it’s not as relaxed or as engaging as Nicholson’s commentary. Peploe and Irvine’s commentaries does dwell into the idea about the film as well as insight into Antonioni.
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When it was released in 1975 that included a premiere at the Cannes Film Festival that year. The film at first received mixed reviews from critics. Some thought it was brilliant while others including Roger Ebert thought it was pretentious. More striking was that the film starred Jack Nicholson, who was considered to be one of the top actors of that decade. Yet, the film would be rarely seen in theaters and on TV as it was considered to be a lost classic. Michelangelo Antonioni meanwhile, went on to do three more feature films and a few shorts before his death on July 30, 2007, the same day that fellow European auteur Ingmar Bergman had died. Then in 2003, just as the films of Antonioni are considered essential. Plans for the film to be restored and re-released with lost footage was in the works as Jack Nicholson provided one of the film's rare prints. In 2005, the film was re-released to rave reviews including a new, re-evaluated review from Roger Ebert who changed his original 2 1/2 out of 4 stars review to 3 1/2 out of 4 stars.
While not as brilliant as L'Avventura or as entertaining as Blow-Up, The Passenger is still an eerie yet engrossing film from the late Michelangelo Antonioni. Featuring superb performances from Jack Nicholson and Maria Schneider, the film is essentially one of the most overlooked films of the 1970s and definitely essential to both the works of Nicholson and Antonioni. While it's not perfect due to its slow, elliptical pacing, it's moments, themes, and most of all, Nicholson's eerie performance and Antonioni's haunting direction makes the entire film worth watching. In the end, The Passenger is an overlooked film that is worth re-discovering for those who didn't get the first time around. For those discovering the late Italian auteur, The Passenger is a film worthy to the legend of Michelangelo Antonioni.
Michelangelo Antonioni Films:Michelangelo Antonioni Films: (Cronaca di un Amore) - (I Vinti) - (The Lady Without Camelias) - Le Amiche - (Il grido) - L'Avventura - La Notte - L’Eclisse - Red Desert - Blow-Up - Zabriskie Point - (Chung Kuo, Cina) - (The Mystery of Oberwald) - Identification of a Woman - (Beyond the Clouds) - Eros-The Dangerous Thread of Things