Is it possible to be moved by a film that you don’t quite understand? That’s how I felt during and immediately after Antonioni’s The Passenger, a frustrating, difficult, outrageous, pretentious, yet captivating mess that had me storming the exits, yet returning to my seat time and time again to see how it all came out. I’ve come to expect utter despair in the face of Antonioni’s work, and while I’ve never really loved any of his films, I’ve been humbled by the persistent thought that despite it all, there’s a great deal going on that my puny little brain cannot grasp. Or maybe there isn’t. At any rate, I respect the man’s courage to confound the audience, when there’s always the temptation to retreat to simplistic explanations. There’s the barest skeleton of a plot (man travels to Africa, finds a dead man, assumes his identity), but even that is discarded as a silly convention. Even characterization, which is normally emphasized in those films that avoid standard storytelling, yields to metaphor, symbol, and deeper layers of meaning. I’m not even sure the characters we see are human beings at all; instead inhabiting an intellectual canvas that generates conversation rather than immediate connection.
And yet I was moved, more so by the understanding that Antonioni’s vision of life — cold, detached, and cursed with endless, fruitless longing — is one I happen to share. Viewers surrounded by an optimistic glow will instinctively loathe this work, even though their first reaction will be to blast the dry cinematic approach, rather than the underlying philosophy. After all, Antonioni’s method is his madness, and he constructs films in this manner because he takes the rule to heart that the movies are primarily a visual medium. Dialogue exists, but not to tell so much as show. If you don’t get it, then, it is due only to a poverty of imagination, as well as a lack of personal experience. If one cannot extract a deeper meaning, it might be due to one’s disregard of life’s one noble calling: examining the world entire and continually asking questions of it. Those who have it all figured out, or are satisfied with where and what they are, will have little to gain from such an enterprise, but who could possibly expect the complacent and the contented to spend a few hours of their lives with barren landscapes and depressing denouements?
Jack Nicholson is David Locke, a jaded reporter (is there any other kind in the 1970s?) who is spending time in Africa investigating one of the many civil wars that continually plagues the continent. While plodding around his depressing hotel room, he discovers that an acquaintance (named Robertson) has died; sprawled out on his bed as if taking a quiet nap. With little hesitation, David decides to assume the man’s identity; switching passports and taking up the man’s appointments as if it were the most logical thing to do. While he is working on the forged documents, we hear snippets of tape recorded conversations between the two men (they had met on the plane) that are both mysterious and illuminating, if only because we get an idea what Antonioni is up to regarding theme. Some may balk at the rapidity with which David decides to forsake home, hearth, and job for a life of anonymity, but much is assumed with an Antonioni work, and it is safely understood that David was alienated, insecure, and flirting with invisibility well in advance of Africa. More than that, it’s a great way to start the film, as it taps into a fantasy we’ve all entertained at some point in our lives, even if things appear tranquil on the surface. Who wouldn’t want to start again? And without the baggage from a life undoubtedly filled with regret and error?
Once David has become Robertson, however, all bets are off and the true grunt work begins. David soon discovers that the dead man was an arms dealer and there is money and danger to be had. He also has a wife looking for him; setting up meetings with what is assumed to be David’s friend, when in fact no such man exists. There is slight intrigue here, but far from the expected fireworks of such a premise. David meets a woman (Maria Schneider, the set of tits from Last Tango in Paris), but she is as much a cipher as David himself, and her status as Girl speaks to and every woman’s quality that is meant to avoid any real depth. They have sex, talk around assorted subjects, and drive from place to place, but fail to connect in any meaningful way. How else could it be? The banter, such as it is, remains lifeless and functional, and for all the muscle they put into it, they could just as easily be reading from a phone book. It does little for the viewer seeking entertainment, but the point is made. When we talk it is to conduct business, but heartfelt conversation no longer serves any purpose in the modern world. It’s hopeless, man, you dig?
David’s employer also seeks answers (was it really a heart attack that felled him?), and as David drives around Spain, he is pursued by various agents of the state. There’s no real drama, of course, because we know that this tale has but one possible ending, and we’re simply conducting an extended death watch. Everything ends up at a seedy hotel at the end of a dusty road, where David relaxes on a bed while the girl walks the grounds. And so begins a long, Antonioni-esque camera move where we slowly, achingly, move towards the window, through the bars, into the courtyard, and swing around to see what has transpired. David is dead, in the exact position as Robertson, although most likely at the hands of the arms dealers (that we do not see David’s face leads me to believe he was shot in the head).
Does this mean that despite our attempts to change or start anew, we are all destined to meet the same, permanent fate? As it began, so shall it end — in death? David had spoken earlier about the fact that people fail to appreciate new locales because they’re always bringing only what they know to the situation, which in turn renders all places the same. Is that the answer, then? Or is it simply a question? Antonioni isn’t telling, and yet I couldn’t help but stare with a quiet sadness at David’s ignoble end, as if his journey of escape was doomed from the start, thus implicating us all in life’s vain search for meaning. He was but a spectator in his own life — a passenger — and he never had a chance.