The Passenger (Professione: reporter) [DVD]
Director : Michelangelo Antonioni
Screenplay : Mark Peploe, Peter Wollen, and Michelangelo Antonioni (story by Mark Peploe)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 1975
Stars : Jack Nicholson (David Locke), Maria Schneider (Girl), Jenny Runacre (Rachel Locke), Ian Hendry (Martin Knight), Steven Berkoff (Stephen), Ambroise Bia (Achebe), José María Caffarel (Hotel Keeper), James Campbell (Witch Doctor), Manfred Spies (German Stranger)
Following the scandalous international success of Blow-Up (1966) and the thundering failure of his critical American debut Zabriskie Point (1970), director Michelangelo Antonioni paired with Jack Nicholson to make The Passenger (Professione: reporter), a slow-burning, lyrical existential fable about identity and alienation, two of Antonioni’s favorite themes. Nicholson was hitting his stride at the time, having worked with luminaries of the ’70s American film renaissance such as Mike Nichols (1971’s Carnal Knowledge), Hal Ashby (1972’s The Last Detail), and Bob Rafelson (1970’s Five Easy Pieces), as well as notable European directors who had come to work in the U.S., including Roman Polanski (1974’s Chinatown) and Milos Forman (1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, for which he won the Best Actor Oscar).
However, working with Antonioni was Nicholson’s greatest feat because it paired him with an austere auteur whose modus operandi was so distinct from Nicholson’s own. Antonioni’s emphasis on landscapes and characters dominated by their environments, both natural and urban, had already become the stuff of art film legend, and in this respect he didn’t seem to fit naturally with an actor of Nicholson’s exuberance and unbridled power. Pauline Kael accused Antonioni of not knowing how to use Nicholson, but I think he knew exactly what he was doing by casting and directing Nicholson against type as a foreign correspondent and documentary filmmaker who, bored with his current existence and adrift in a crumbling world, adopts the identity of a dead man as a form of escape and perhaps renewal. Nicholson’s character, who is named David Locke, is, like so many of Antonioni’s characters, being slowly crushed by his environment, which Antonioni shows beautifully in the film’s opening passages in the deserts of northern Africa where Locke is searching fruitlessly for a secret war.
Like Blow-up, The Passenger is a globe-hopping thriller, yet it defies virtually all of that genre’s conventions. It’s a heady experience, which Antonioni allows to unfold slowly and methodically, often depriving us of crucial information that would help us make easy sense of his characters’ actions (some of this is the result of the film’s purposefully ambiguous “art film” mode, but it is also the result of Antonioni having to trim the film to keep the producers happy). When we first meet Locke, it is several scenes before we find out who he is and what he does, which is central to the film’s theme of identity and modern man’s reliance on it to make sense of his world. Locke has become so alienated from his life that his own name and history no longer function to ground him; he’s adrift to the point that it doesn’t matter who he is or what he does.
Thus, when Locke wanders into the hotel room next to his own to ask his neighbor to borrow some soap and finds him dead, he takes the man’s clothes and datebook, switches their passport photographs, and then sets off into the world under the man’s name. Back at home, Locke’s estranged wife (Jenny Runacre) and editor (Ian Hendry) are led to believe that he has died, but this will not keep them from trying to track down Locke’s new identity, thinking that he somehow holds the key to Locke’s mysterious death. As much as he is trying to leave his past behind, it won’t lie still and die; the past, Antonioni frequently shows, has a life of its own, even if it’s one we can’t fully understand.
As Locke follows the dead man’s datebook, attending preset meetings and arriving at various locations, he learns that he has assumed the identity of a left-leaning gun runner, one who is possibly involved in the secret African war his war correspondent self had been unable to find. He also meets a young woman (Maria Schneider, hot off 1972’s Last Tango in Paris) who agrees to help him, and then ends up traveling with him for reasons as obscure as his own (the fact that her name is never mentioned in the film is key to her presence as a symbolic free spirit, rather than a psychologically defined human being). Several times in the film Locke asks her why she is with him, and she is never able to give him a satisfactory answer. After all, what answer would suffice?
In its own way, The Passenger is a beautiful and profound film, one that finds Antonioni doing some of his best work, especially after the debacle of Zabriskie Point, in which he attempted to capture the failure of the American hippie movement, but succeeded only in making a film that was alternately silly and ponderous. The Passenger is ponderous, as well, but in a way that’s strangely engaging and thought-provoking. Seeing Nicholson play a blank slate is intriguing because his characters are usually so invigorated and challenging; it gives the film an added sense of ennui just to see Nicholson playing a character so deeply, fundamentally alone.
The Passenger ends with a much talked about long, slow-zoom tracking shot that lasts several minutes and brings together virtually every character in one of those moments of cinematic bravado that carries an electric charge. It’s so slow and deliberate that it becomes virtually suspenseful, drawing you into the image and leaving you desperate to know what it will next reveal. It may very well be Antonioni’s finest moment.
|The Passenger DVD|
|This DVD of The Passenger contains Michelangelo Antonioni’s preferred 126-minute cut of the film, which was not seen theatrically in the U.S. in 1975.|
|Subtitles||English, Spanish, French, Chinese, Portuguese, Thai|
|Distributor||Sony Home Entertainment|
|Release Date||April 25, 2006|
|After years of inclusion on lists of great films not available on video in the U.S., The Passenger finally arrives on DVD after an extensive restoration and brief theatrical re-release in 2005. Overall, the film looks great, with a clean, clear anamorphic image that clearly reflects the restoration effort. Color is strong and consistent throughout. The transfer maintains an excellent film-like image, which means that it is somewhat soft and reflects the grain structure inherent to the image. In other words, it looks exactly like it should.|
|The two-channel English monaural soundtrack sounds fine throughout. The Passenger is a quiet film with virtually no music on the soundtrack, and it is largely free of ambient hiss or any distortion.|
|The main supplements on this disc are two audio commentaries. The first was recorded by actor Jack Nicholson, whose voice sounds almost distractingly raspy. While he has some intriguing things to say about working with Antonioni, much of Nicholson’s commentary is a real disappointment; he is frequently silent and resorts to simply narrating the action on-screen. This is a perfect example of a commentary that would have benefited from a moderator who could have asked Nicholson focused questions and really squeezed him for pertinent information. The second commentary by journalist Aurora Irvine and screenwriter Mark Peploe is much more rewarding in terms of its information value. The only other supplement on the disc is the 2005 re-release theatrical trailer in anamorphic widescreen.|
Copyright ©2006 James Kendrick
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