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Unlikely Masterpiece: Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger

Unlikely Masterpiece: Michelangelo Antonioni's The Passenger

This past winter, deep in the throes of programming the Sarasota Film Festival, I left the office late at night and walked to the local art house theater in Sarasota to catch the final screening of the day, Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger, which I had missed at the New York Film Festival a few months earlier. I had never seen the film before and despite my own issues with many of Antonioni’s films, I had heard great things from friends who had seen the restored print. It was a late night and I needed to clear my head from the piles of submissions we had received, so I decided to give the film a chance, to step back in time a little and take this rare opportunity to see a classic film on the big screen (ok, it’s a very small big screen, but still) in Sarasota.

I still can’t get it out of my head. It’s the best thing I’ve seen in months. And my oh my, how the world has changed.

In 1975, director Michelangelo Antonioni was at a professional crossroads. The Italian master, whose films L’Avventura (1960) and Blow-Up (1966) were bookends of the early 1960’s art house boom in America, had made the move to Hollywood and created one of the most notorious critical bombs in the history of American film, Zabriskie Point (1970). Financed by MGM in an attempt to capitalize on the ‘counter culture’ of the late 1960’s student movement, Zabriskie Point tells the story of a young couple, an activist on the run and a woman seeking a new job, and their free-love encounter. Crudely edited by studio executives, the film was a hodge-podge of half-baked ideas about the ‘hippie’ lifestyle and was widely regarded as a giant mess of gorgeous photography and meaningless political rhetoric that failed to make whatever indecipherable point Antonioni hoped to articulate about an American culture he barely knew. Zabriskie Point cost $7 million dollars to make, and in its entire run in American movie theaters took in less than $900,000.

In today’s world, there are very few if any Hollywood studios that would consider working with an artist of Antonioni’s pedigree on a project like Zabriskie Point; imagine 20th Century Fox signing up Abbas Kiarostami to make a film about hip-hop and you get the idea. It is no surprise that the film failed, but it is surprising that five years later, MGM decided to work with Antonioni again on another film. In looking at the Hollywood of the time, however, it is less surprising than it appears. The early 1970’s were a time of great ideas and high-quality prestige films that were the main box office draws for the studios; Paramount was in it heyday with films like The Godfather I and The Godfather II raking in the cash and the accolades, Cabaret had brought the musical into the cynical Viet Nam era, Mean Streets and American Graffiti heralded the arrival of a new crop of American directors who had ambitious ideas and a deep understanding of then history of the movies. In 1975, with the first ever summer blockbuster hovering on horizon in Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (drawing on the event movie model established by 1973’s The Exorcist), MGM released the second American film by Antonioni, The Passenger (aka Professione: Reporter).

The Passenger couldn’t have been an easy film to get financed or to make, especially after the tepid critical reception for Zabriskie Point, but there were two factors working in Antonioni’s favor; Jack Nicholson and Maria Schneider. Nicholson was coming off of the critical success of Chinatown, one of the great movies of the 1970’s (directed by Polish director Roman Polanski), and was already an established movie star who packed the counter-cultural appeal that was crucial to attracting a younger audience. Maria Schneider, the beautiful young German actress, had become a sensation with her scandalously sexy role opposite Marlon Brando in Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango In Paris, a film that serves as a strong model for how MGM might have looked at The Passenger and decided to give the green light. Take an American movie star, add a sexy young European actress, put them in exotic locations helmed by an Italian master and voila*. Antonioni got his money and his stars, the film was made and MGM released The Passenger in April of 1975 to general critical and commercial indifference and the film drifted into obscurity, immediately overshadowed by Nicholson’s Oscar winning performance in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest later that same year. To this day, Antonioni has never made another movie in Hollywood.

Who Are You?: Jack Nicholson as David Locke in Antonioni’s The Passenger (Floriano Steiner/courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)

This time, however, America got it wrong. Re-released by Sony Pictures Classics in a beautifully restored print, The Passenger is a film that demands a critical and commercial reassessment. The film tells the story of David Locke (Nicholson), a reporter investigating the arms trade in an unnamed Saharan African nation. When a fellow traveler turns up dead in Locke’s hotel, Locke seizes upon the opportunity and switches identities with the man, becoming Robertson and telling the locals (and the rest of the world) that David Locke is dead. As the new Robertson-who-is-really-Locke (I’m going to call him Locke from now on), Locke starts investigating the life of the man he has replaced, discovering that Robertson was engaged in the very arms dealing on which Locke was reporting. Locke also meets a beautiful young woman (Schneider) who joins him on his journey through the arms dealing underworld, and as their relationship develops, Locke’s wife and former employer scour Europe and Africa for clues to Locke’s well-reported demise. Things culminate in the final 10 minutes with one of the most compelling and confounding visual climaxes to a film that has ever been shot; a slowly prowling camera stares out the window as shady arms dealers arrive, the girl steps outside, and a resolution of sorts is achieved.

Love on The Run: Nicholson and Schneider in The Passenger (Floriano Steiner/courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)

Those seeking a concrete plot and a conclusion that ties everything preceding it together in a neat and tidy bow will probably prefer to skip The Passenger, but by refusing to be open to the possibility of Antonioni’s visual exploration of bodies and lives in motion, they will be poorer for it. Like any Antonioni film, The Passenger is not a quest for narrative understanding but an interior journey writ large as an existential story of a character’s path to self-annihilation. The film feels more spacious and languid than almost any other film I have seen; it takes its time to establish its rhythms and themes of rhyming and doubling, and Antonioni fills the frame with beautiful, expansive landscapes and tense urban exteriors that are as disorienting for the audience as they are for the seat-of-their pants couple searching for themselves in the lives and skins of other identities. Antonioni uncovers something essential about identity in The Passenger; we can become whoever we fantasize we might be and our lives are predicated on living within the context we create for ourselves. The Passenger is an existential masterpiece, the story of a life made and ended without the usual psychological baggage and plot-based justifications for the character’s actions. This is a film about following circumstances and experiencing life by living it.

I won’t pretend that The Passenger will be to everyone’s liking, but for those interested in exploring the depths of the cinematic experience as a visual, intellectual form you can’t do much better. I just discovered that the film is playing in my hometown of Flint, MI in the coming weeks, which is exciting to me, even from afar. This never happened when I lived there! As seen on a brand new 35mm print, restored from MGM’s original, The Passenger is a perfect tonic for the summertime blues, when the movie theater typically becomes the playground of the current Hollywood formula; mindless escapism that rewards passive viewers with titillation, sound and fury. It is refreshing, then, to be reminded of a time when a major Hollywood studio would invest in a film like The Passenger and release it in the spring. It is even more refreshing that a company like Sony Pictures Classics, ever the evangelists of the art house culture which today dangles from the edge of extinction, would release the film in theaters today, when its ideas and vision of the world beneath the surface of things feels more relevant than ever. A thrilling must see.

The Passenger plays June 16, 17, 18, 2006 at The Flint Institute of Arts

*Of course, in their recipe for success, MGM forgot to add butter… {rimshot}**

** ‘rimshot’ was not meant to be a pun on the butter thing. {grin}

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