Monday, August 20, 2007

The Passenger

Michelangelo Antonioni | 1975 | 126 min | Italy + France + Spain

After the recent death of Michelangelo Antonioni, I decided that it was my duty to finally see The Passenger, one of my father’s favourite films of all time, and one of very few ‘classics’ in the director’s oeuvre that I had somehow skipped over for so many years. Luckily, The Royal was screening the recently re-released film, so I got my chance to see it on the big screen.

The Passenger opens with a long, almost totally silent scene in which Jack Nicholson is aimlessly wandering the utterly desolate Saharan landscape, following vague directions from skittish guides only to find himself more and more lost in the endless orange dunes. The gorgeously shot opening sets the tone for the next two hours, which will follow Nicholson’s character as he gets more and more lost, but in a more existential sense.

Nicholson plays David Locke, a reporter who decides (seemingly on a whim) to assume the identity of a recently deceased acquaintance named Robertson – a man who was renting the room next to his in a remote African outpost. Taking the stranger’s passport, luggage and appointment schedule, Nicholson leaves Africa and heads into a new and unknown life. The stranger turns out to be a gunrunner, but this fantastical fact is rendered almost mundane by Locke’s bizarre actions in the first place. We never find out why he decided to step seamlessly from his own life into another's, but ultimately the answer is irrelevant, because The Passenger, like all of Antonioni’s best efforts, is a film about unlimited possibility, and frustrated desire.

Though we discover snippets of information about David Locke (the man with the estranged wife successful reporting career) the banal facts are unimportant. During a simple but effective scene that gets to the heart of the matter, Locke is driving down a desolate highway with a girl he picked up in Barcelona (played beautifully by Maria Schneider). She asks him what he’s running away from, and he tells her to turn around in her seat. As she watches the empty road stretch endlessly to the horizon it becomes clear that Locke neither running away, nor toward. He is simply moving, negating the past itself.

Pulled across Europe by Robertson’s obligations and fleeing multiple pursuers (some after the gunrunner, and some after the real David Locke), Nicholson and Schneider eventually end up back in the desert – this time in rural Spain – to face the fate they’ve been trying to outrun.

Antonioni steadfastly refuses to answer any questions (either Locke’s or our own), threatening throughout the film with his ponderous direction and enthralling cinematography to strand us in the desert forever. But somehow, by the time you get to the film’s brilliant finale, a nearly-ten-minute-long single shot of the barren yard outside Lock’s hotel window, you start to feel like being stranded in the desert is the right thing after all – a return to the void that can’t be escaped, and freedom at last.

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