Michelangelo Antonioni (born 1912) has been making movies for over a half century, even in the face of a debilitating stroke in 1985. (His segment of last year’s Eros is best forgotten.) The trilogy of L’Avventura, La Notte, and Eclipse in the early 1960’s riveted a generation of art film fans, challenging viewers to work through the complex ambiguities and often difficult to fathom meanings that the director embedded in his ever more abstract films. He reached wider audiences in later, more accessible films such as Red Desert and Blowup and the now re-released 1975 film, The Passenger.
David Locke (Jack Nicholson) the anti-hero of The Passenger is a television reporter covering an insurrection against the dictatorship of an African country;he’s fed up with the primitive conditions and the endless desert sands. When he finds an acquaintance dead of a heart attack in the room next door at his hotel, he switches passports and identities, becoming David Robertson; David Locke is reported dead.
Robertson, it turns out, was a dealer selling illegal arms to the rebels. Locke, as Robertson, keeps a series of appointments that were noted in Robertson’s datebook. He learns that Robertson was more than a profiteer–he believed in the rebels’ cause. Locke’s wife, Rachel (Jenny Runacre), obviously involved with a lover even before learning of his "death," believed that Locke was too easy on the subjects of his interviews. A contrast between the two identities is thus made–the idealist with commitments vs. the passive observer.
Rachel becomes suspicious of the circumstances of her husband’s reported death and begins to look for Robertson, enlisting the police in her quest. Locke/Robertson, aware he is being sought, goes on the road, the classic metaphor for life’s journey. Robertson’s military connections are also after him, either the rebels to whom he may have failed to deliver or the other side, seeking to close down the rebel’s source of arms. In Barcelona, in a surreal Gaudi building, he picks up a girl (Maria Schneider) who joins him and assists him in eluding his pursuers. "I used to be somebody else," he confesses to her, "I traded him in." Locke’s new identity is as problematic as was his own. Antonioni brings the pieces of the story together in an astounding concluding sequence, much of it viewed through the barred ground floor window of Locke’s hotel room.
While the film tells a clear story, with a degree of suspense generated by the pursuer/pursued setup, Antonioni is more fundamentally addressing issues of identity, the search for meaning in life, coincidence and the inevitablility of destiny. Lock surrenders his own failed identity (failed marriage, compromised career), only to find he cannot slip on that of another like a pair of new gloves. As he wanders first through the desert and then through arid southern Spain, there is a sense that he has lost any identity at all–that he is a man who has lost his soul. Briefly, the connection with the girl suggests there might be redemption in love, but it is not to be. His wife’s concluding remark clinches it: "I never knew him, " she tells the police.
Nicholson, as young (and slender) as he was in 1975, inhabits his role thoroughly, demonstrating the charismatic screen presence that follows in his long career. Schneider’s role as the girl is underwritten, but she sustains a credibility in the part, as a foil for Locke. Runacre is appropriately brittle as Rachel. There is a consistency of tone and texture in The Passenger that seems to reinforce Antonioni’s points; his choices of locations equally contribute to the effectiveness with which they are made. Antonioni’s is a bleak, existential take on life, but the story’s melodramatic structure and the sheer artistry of the director’s technique make for an exhilarating film experience.