(1975) dir. Michelangelo Antonioni
Until earlier this year, I’d never seen a Michelangelo Antonioni film. I started with Blow-Up (1966), partially because it was the film of his that I used to see throughout video stores even in the 1980’s, one of the most ubiquitous foreign films, though I had never actually watched it. There has just been a retrospective of Antonioni, as well, this year at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley and the Castro Theatre in San Francisco, and of course, I managed to see none of them. But I was intrigued by The Passenger for some reason, knowing that the films of his that I was seeing were his later, English language films, not necessarily representative. And then he goes and dies.
The Passenger is actually, like Blow-Up, surprising in the way that it unfolds, the sense of what the film is about emanates so much more heavily than the actual narrative itself. In some ways, both films have a traditional sort of plot in synopsis, but they play out so differently, so clear that it’s not so much the story, but more the ideas and mood that pervade the film that resonate and strike at the viewer.
I have read somewhere that the original title for this film, Professione: reporter, seemed much more apt, and it certainly does. Jack Nicholson plays a reporter, austensibly of English descent, who is trying to make a film about an uprising in an unnamed African nation. While he interviews the leaders of the country, he fails to get them to admit the truth, acknowledge that there is an uprising, and also fails to meet with the anti-government group altogether. When an acquaintence dies of a heart attack back at their hotel, Nicholson takes the opportunity to usurp his name, swapping out their possessions and their passports. He makes it look as if he has died and takes off with the businessman’s belongings to see what he can acquire.
When it turns out that the businessman is involved in gun-running to the very same opposition group that Nicholson had tried and failed to interview, the escapism that his character has sought somehow reflects his prior lack of commitment and understanding of the things that he tried to report on. His detachment, while not criticized professionally (he is actually highly thought of in his field), is part of his inability to connect to the world, including his failed marriage and his failure to care or fully understand things.
In one of his interviews with a tribal chief, the man turns the camera on Nicholson, telling him quite clearly that his questions say more about himself than they do of understanding the conflict that they seek to comprehend. There is a clear critique of the nature of reporting, not simply the character himself. And as Nicholson wanders Europe, trying to play the role of his assumed persona, he moves into stranger and stranger environs.
Especially interesting are the Antonio Gaudi buildings, their strange alien forms, a landscape that he doesn’t comprehend. The shots among those buildings are quite striking.
But the most striking is the masterful final shot, or penultimate shot, I can’t recall. From his hotel room, ushering his lover away, the view through the bars of the window is an amazing movement of forms across the screen. The woman, crossing the street, the cars racing in, the slow encroachment of the camera through the window itself, crossing the street, then looking back on the hotel as Nicholson is discovered dead, killed silently, off-screen, by the Africans. It’s an amazing tone poem of movement, of his isolation and his disconnect, finally, fatally, completed. It does reckon, in a sense, with Blow-Up‘s final shot, the man in the frame who suddenly disappears. There is a continued theme of disconnect and dissolution.
As to Antonioni, I’ll have to seek out some films from other periods. Certainly, these films have been interesting. I think I liked this one more than the other. I’m still thinking about it.