Michelangelo Antonioni's 1975 film The Passenger is endlessly puzzling but always engaging. Film today rarely achieves both qualities simultaneously. There are of course exceptions, but today's filmmakers generally are much less daring than Antonioni. Starring a young Jack Nicholson, The Passenger is being rereleased and opens for a short stint Friday, January 27, at the Flicks. Though I'm not certain of the occasion, I assume it is simply to reiterate the film's brilliance during this era of lesser cinematic ambitions.
Nicholson plays David Locke, a reporter working on a documentary film about civil war in an anonymous African nation. After a miserable escapade to a desolate nowhere, Locke returns to his hotel to find the dead body of "Mr. Robertson." Locke assumes Robertson's identity and never thinks twice about the decision. Nicholson portrays the action as less of a deliberated upon choice than a sheer necessity. It's not that Locke envied Robertson, but rather that he desperately desired death over his own life.
However, Robertson's business in Africa was arming the very guerrillas whom Locke was filming. He finds this role somewhat disorienting at first, but as he grows comfortable in Robertson's skin, he begins to cherish his newfound freedom. The dangers of living through death under the guise of another man arise when Locke first discovers an old colleague on his trail and is later pursued by police. To escape, he employs the help of a beautiful tourist girl (played by Maria Schneider).
Antonioni injects ambiguity into every scene such that only repeated viewings will do The Passenger justice. This uncertainty draws the audience into the plot and slowly reveals the movie's central themes. As Locke pushes forward down a predetermined path into an unknown future, he becomes ever more liberated from the restraints of his old identity. As his anonymity gives way to the frustrations of Robertson's identity, however, Locke gradually slips back into misery. Just before the climax scene, Locke gives a speech about an individual who committed suicide as a result of gaining vision after a lifetime of blindness. Suffocating ugliness in the world was too much for the man to bear. Life for the individual in this world is too much paineven when the restraints of an individual's identity can be dispensed with.
Watching The Passenger is nearly comparable to ingesting a celebrated piece of timeless literature. The scope of Antonioni's artistic ambitions are almost exhausting and his delivery is rarely short of profound. In stark contrast, the most challenging and ambitious of today's films rarely wander from a straightforward presentation of their significance. Maybe viewers have proved their preference over the years for easy-to-digest cinema. The ambiguity present in all aspects of Antonioni's film involve and challenge the audience. There are no easy answers here; we aren't asked to passively soak up the film's supposed insight like eager sponges. Instead we are drawn into a dense fog of deft dialogue and carefully woven symbolism. The events that unfold throughout The Passenger will linger in one's mind and give up their secrets only through deliberate and careful contemplation.
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