Review Written by: Joe Earp
What the MPAA Rating should be: PG-13 (for violence, nudity and language)
Directed by: Michelangelo Antonioni
Written by: Michelangelo Antonioni, Mark Peploe and Peter Wollen
Produced by: Carlo Ponti
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Maria Schneider, Jenny Runacre, Ian Hendry, Steven Berkoff
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics
Michelangelo Antonioni's lost gem The Passenger
begins in silence. The soundtrack is eerily quiet as the tale of redemption, identity and memory unfurls, drawing us deeper into its mystery. In fact the movie is so powerful music is not needed: the film exists solely on its own accord. It is because The Passenger
is a classic 60's thriller, but a thriller with no equal. Unlike most high-octane, boorish movies that exist simply for our own base desires, Antonioni's masterpiece questions who we really are. The genius auteur is not afraid to cut straight to the human dilemma and directly questions our own sense of identity and place.
The plot centres around John Locke, a reporter mired in Africa who simply wants out. Luckily the roommate at his hotel dies suddenly of a heart attack. Locke seizes the opportunity remorselessly, assuming the man's identity in a desperate attempt to free himself from the drudgery of his own existence. Although the story sounds simple, the ideas behind it are superb. Initially nobody even seems to question who Locke is, even though he acts nothing like the deceased man. Initially it seems clear that Antonioni is suggesting that really we don't know each other at all. Human beings take everything at face value. Looks are all that really matter when it comes to identity. Why else are photos considered of highest importance in airports and secure venues? Haven't the Mission: Impossible
movies so brilliantly taught us that all we need is a particularly elastic rubber mask to assume someone's identity?
However, being a great film The Passenger
does not necessarily answer all of its own questions. Although at the start Antonioni seems to suggest that identity is a question of looks slowly he adds more complexity to the issue, giving us more clues to solve the puzzle. John realises that he is in over his head as more is revealed about his deceased roommate. Soon we realise that he's a fish out of water, a lost soul who can barely hold his own in a world full of hate and disgust. By the end of the movie the audience still aren't sure exactly what Antonioni is trying to say about human identity. However this is not a criticism of the film. We are left questioning the movie, largely because it does not answer all our questions.
The film is one of those great movies where very little is said and yet much is implied. For example, all we need for evidence of infidelity is a note pinned to a mirror. The dialogue is sparse and harsh, just like the wonderful locations that include the desert of Africa, the empty halls of Germany and the outdated decadence of Vienna. Antonioni does not glorify his locations. Unlike David Lean who turned the desert into an oasis of beauty and wonder, Anotioni's landscapes are as empty as his soundtracks. The desert becomes a deep void of non-existance, an eternity of loneliness. Few human beings navigate the harsh landscapes of Antonioni's world. Men and women become insignificant, drowned out by the sheer emptiness of the landscape around them.
The cinematography is truly beautiful. The film's penultimate shot (which lasts for a good five minutes) is impossible to describe without giving away the film's twist. Nevertheless it is the set piece of a movie that looks absolutely amazing. I was lucky enough to see this film at a local arthouse cinema which I have only just discovered (and may I add, this cinema has become my new home away from home) and the sheer beauty of the shots simply bowled me over. Characters are rarely positioned in the centre of the frame. Instead they are restricted to the very edge of the shot, making them appear lonely and alienated. In one single shot 'sex' scene for example, Jack Nicholson (Locke) and his elusive femme fatale lay in bed in the very bottom of the shot. Antonioni leaves a huge amount of empty space above their heads, illustrating the essential loneliness both characters feel. Their actions are not glorified: instead, thanks to the masterful direction, it appears as though they are clinging to each other desperately, two lost figures in a barren landscape of hate.
The script is first rate. One of Jack Nicholson's final monologues is particularly memorable in terms of its power and emotion. The very fact that he says so little for most of the movie's duration makes this climactic confession even more heart-felt and upsetting. The performances all around are very good. Only Stephen Berkoff annoyed me in a minor role as a dirty lover. Nevertheless his role is tiny and all of the other actors definitely pull their weight. So in conclusion, The Passenger
is an amazing film. Although it is rather hard to find, hunt it down as soon as you can. This is a gem you wouldn't want to miss.
Jack Nicholson in the hard-to-find film The Passenger.