Of the many negative effects that the emergence of the auteur theory had on the cinematic world, perhaps the most pernicious was the license that auterism gave some directors to indulge their inclinations toward pretentiously ambiguous filmmaking. Revered Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni offers ample evidence of this phenomenon in both this film and its predecessor, Zabriskie Point (1970). Although Antonioni broke through internationally with Blow-Up (1968), a tight thriller with subtle artistic flourishes, Zabriskie Point and The Passenger are opaque dramas more concerned with mood than narrative. Yet while Zabriskie Point is interesting for the way it captures certain attitudes of the counterculture generation, The Passenger has no such historical significance. Instead, it’s murky story about the grand themes of alienation, duplicity, and identity.
Jack Nicholson, delivering one of the least interesting performances of his career, stars as David Locke, an American TV reporter tracking down story leads in equatorial Africa. Returning to his hotel one night, Locke discovers that a fellow traveler named Robertson has been murdered, so Locke steals Robertson’s papers, adds his photo in place of the dead man’s, and attempts to assume the Robertson’s identity. At first, this seems like a path to excitement, since Robertson was a gunrunner; Locke accepts payments from one of Robertson’s clients, and he also begins a romance with a sexy college student. (She’s played by Maria Schneider, of Last Tango in Paris fame, but Antonioni never bothers to give her character a name.) Eventually, Locke’s ruse unravels because he gets on the wrong side of dangerous men. There’s also a subplot involving Locke’s wife, who treks the globe looking for him. Everything culminates in a quasi-famous finale involving an elaborate tracking shot that, over the course of seven minutes, winds its way from a hotel room, into a courtyard, and back into the hotel room.
Thanks to Antonioni’s refusal to provide explanatory details about characters and scenes—to say nothing of his painfully slow pacing—The Passenger is the sort of thing critics can spend decades dissecting, which means that many intelligent people have provided viable interpretations of the picture. Consumed as straightforward narrative, however, the film is borderline interminable. Countless insignificant actions are allowed to unfold at excruciating length, as if Antonioni hid meanings within the frame that the viewer is supposed to discover. Furthermore, because The Passenger features a distinct storyline, the movie weirdly straddles two worlds—it’s neither purely artistic nor purely narrative. Ultimately, the film is a bit like an abstract painting executed in a simplistic style: Where some beholders perceive layers, others see only the bland surface.
The Passenger: FUNKY