Passenger, The: Directed by Antonioni, Starring Jack Nicholson

The Passenger, known in Europe as Profession: Reporter, was Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni’s third English-language feature, and arguably his last great film.

Forming a loose trilogy with two other international collaborations produced by Carlo Ponti (Blow-Up and Zabriskie Point), it moves with the unhurried pace, visual sophistication, and tight tonal control that characterize the auteurs work at the height of his powers in the 1960s and 1970s.

At the center of the film is Jack Nicholson, who, at the midpoint of a decade, which saw his finest performances, delivers coolly charismatic work that seems distant from his movie-star acting of recent years. Nicholson plays David Locke, a TV journalist trying to gather footage on a guerilla war in the Sahara Desert. Feeling a sense of defeat in his assignment and a general dissatisfaction with his life, David decides to switch identities with a man who has died suddenly in the hotel room next to his.

Upon discovering that the dead man was a gunrunner for a group of revolutionaries, David improvises the new life he has claimed for himself, traveling around the world to escape from his wife and colleagues, and getting acquainted with a mysterious woman (played by French Maria Schneider, hot off Bertolucci’s controversial erotic drama, Last Tango in Paris).

While a synopsis of the plot would suggest a romantic political thriller, Antonioni and cinematographer Luciano Tovoli shoot perilous confrontations, exotic scenery, Gaud architecture, and even a car chase from a resolutely dispassionate distance-highlighting the sense of emptiness and spiritual languor that plagues the protagonist. Time and geography seem to collapse, and the editing disorients the viewer with its overlapping action and startling juxtapositions.

As in his masterpieces, including LAvventura and LEcclise, Antonioni probes into the void left behind by peoples disappearances, and the terrifying possibility that our lives (and the roles we play as citizens of the world) could be either inconsequential or interchangeable.

The films leisurely pace distracts viewers from anticipating the pessimistic answers Antonioni tries to offer to his own questions. Not only is journalistic truth viewed as a sham, and romantic love revealed to be ambiguous at best and utterly indifferent at worst, but we also learn that even the films extensive globetrotting provides Locke with no escapes from the superficialities of his existence. He discovers, in the end, that his decision to be reincarnated as another man is yet another trap, a role that does not fit him but that will ultimately determine his destiny.

While Antonioni is recognized now as one of film historys great figures, his work was quite controversial among some critics. In 1960, his breakout LAvventura was booed at the Cannes Film Fest, though it went on to be named the second best film of all time in Sight & Sounds poll just two years later.

While some critics have charged that Antonionis work is hampered by sophomoric interpretations of philosophy, or dated by the fashions and preoccupations of its time, it is impossible to dispute the breadth of his influence as a visual stylist on contemporary directors as diverse as Theo Angelopoulos and Wong Kar-wai, among others.

Antoniennui, in the famous coinage of critic Andrew Sarris, was certainly a product of the post-WWII zeitgeist, but it has since proven to be an enduring contribution to international cinematic language. Critiquing but identifying with the privileged class (a point-of-view emphasized in The Passenger through its juxtaposition of the North African desert with European luxuries), Antonioni mixed brooding eroticism with bourgeois boredom, and disguised overwhelming feelings of alienation and helplessness with his cool detachment.

The longevity of Antonionis work could be secured on his talent for exquisitely designed, famously provocative endings, such as the metaphysical tennis match in Blow-Up; the ambivalent attempt at human connection in LAvventura; and (perhaps most revered) the wordless, unpopulated montage in LEclisse. The Passenger doesnt disappoint either, boasting a six-minute penultimate shot that demonstrates the directors technical virtuosity in service of a devastating existential vision.

Inspired by the legendary 45-minute zoom-in of Michael Snows avant-garde classic Wavelength, the final scene in The Passenger begins with the camera moving from the inside of a hotel room, in which Locke lies asleep, toward an iron-barred window overlooking a courtyard. Everyday life swarms around the setting as fate quietly intervenes, bringing together all the principal characters in pursuit of Locke. Miraculously, Antonionis camera frees itself from the restraints of both its setting and traditional film grammar, pushing through the iron bars and swooping in a circle to observe Lockes room from the outside.

In this single smooth gesture, Antonioni uses his trademark understatement to subvert the kind of suspense usually found at the climax of a thriller. Since the films narrative remains largelybut deliberately–underdeveloped, suspense in these final moments is tied up not in the resolution of the plot but in a poetic representation of its themes of identity, responsibility, and the limitations of an individuals perspectiveall of which are explored throughout the film as they relate to both private and political life.

As with much of Antonionis oeuvre, The Passenger has long been difficult for audiences to find, and was once available only on poor VHS copies. For 30 years, Jack Nicholson owned the rights, and it was required that either he or Antonioni be in attendance at any screening of the film. In 2005, Sony Pictures Classics launched a small theatrical engagement of a slightly extended version before releasing it on DVD. Since then, this little-seen work of 1970s art-house cinema has been restored to its position among the greatest and most intriguing works in a highly influential career.

Reviewed by Andrew Chan