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With: Jack Nicholson, Maria Schneider, Jenny Runacre, Ian Hendry, Steven Berkoff, Ambroise Bia
Written by: Michelangelo Antonioni, Mark Peploe, Peter Wollen, based on a story by Mark Peploe
Directed by: Michelangelo Antonioni
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some violence, nudity and language
Running Time: 119
Date: 02/28/1975

The Passenger (1975)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Identity Crisis

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

In January of 1999, I had the opportunity to see my first three Michelangelo Antonioni movies on the big screen at a Castro Theater festival. I saw Blowup first, but The Passenger affected me more strongly.

Jack Nicholson stars as a TV reporter doing a story in a dusty corner of Africa. He finds himself neighbors with an Englishman who dies in his hotel room. Jack notices that the two of them look kind of alike, so he decides to switch passports -- and identities. But it turns out that the English guy is an illegal arms trader. It's an interesting premise, and you can just see how Hollywood would do it, with Mel Gibson or Bruce Willis being chased through the streets by both bad guys and his friends. But Antonioni is an artist, and he uses his plot to emphasize the loneliness and boredom of humanity, and to suggest that identity has nothing more than a tenuous hold on us.

At first Jack tries to keep to the schedule written in the dead man's calendar. But Jack's wife, even though she is shown making love to another man, becomes interested in finding him. (Jack's TV reporter has been announced dead, and the wife begins looking for the Englishman to find out what really happened.) Jack's wife begins her search out of sheer curiosity and boredom. She's not concerned with her soul-mate. It's selfishness on her part. Jack enlists the aid of a French woman (Maria Schneider) to help him get his things out of a hotel which is being watched. The pair become lovers and hit the road together.

They end up, at last, in a hotel in Egypt. Jack lays down in bed, and the camera slowly -- very slowly -- zooms away from the bed toward the slatted door in Jack's room, which looks out upon a courtyard. The shot lasts ten minutes. During this ten minutes we see humanity pass by the door; children, cars, an old man, Maria, etc. Also during this ten minutes Jack dies. The wife and Maria arrive in the room at the same time, but neither sheds any tears.

Antonioni makes all this work astonishingly well with his incredible visual sense. As often as possible, each actor is framed in the center of a huge amount of empty space -- either empty desert or in decorative buildings in a city. The effect is amazing. You truly feel the emptiness and loneliness, and you believe that there really is no difference between the identity of one man and the identity of another.

Antonioni made a similar movie to The Passenger in his native Italy called L'Avventura (1960). L'Avventura was able to dispense with the Hollywood plot structure, but does not open up the space like The Passenger did.

Like many foreign directors, he was seduced by Hollywood and made three English-language pictures there, Blowup (1966), The Passenger, and Zabriskie Point (1969). These three are all much more artistic than Hollywood was used to, and Antonioni escaped back to Italy with his integrity intact. In 1995, the Academy presented him with an honorary Oscar, and Jack Nicholson was asked to present. It seems clear that Nicholson is proud of his involvement in this movie. It seems like a typical blunder that the Academy gave him his Oscar that year not for The Passenger but for good but overrated One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

The Passenger is not only a great Hollywood movie, it's a great movie in world cinema. And it has been severely underrated.

Update: At last! The Passenger is available on DVD, from Sony Pictures Classics. Nicholson provides a murmured commentary track (during which he calls this film the "biggest adventure -- in filming -- of my life") and a second one with screenwriter Mark Peploe (along with journalist Aurora Irvine) provide a second track.

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