Credit: MGM
by Dhruv Goyal Featured Film Kicking the Canon Kicking the Canon

The Passenger — Michelangelo Antonioni

October 20, 2023

Michelangelo Antonioni’s endlessly digressive Blow-Up (1966), the Italian director’s first of four films produced outside his home country, features a particular digression that links it directly to his final international production, The Passenger (1975). Blow-Up’s central character, Thomas, is a hot-shot fashion photographer living a materially successful but emotionally unfulfilling life in Swinging Sixties London. His dissatisfaction has many sources, but he — in a particularly unpredictable moment — links his emotional sickness to disdain for his job. He wants to escape (fashion) photography’s vanity; to, in his own words, “go off London” and be “free.” When his editor asks what he’ll do, though, he has no answer. In The Passenger, personal disillusionment from professional (and political) dissatisfaction is the film’s central conceit. Unlike Thomas, The Passenger’s protagonist — a war reporter doubling as something of a documentarian — seems to know what he will do when he’s free.

This clarity, primarily political in nature, comes from the two other (de)tours Antonioni took between Blow-Up and The Passenger. The first one, Zabriskie Point (1970), is his most overtly political film. It’s an expensively mounted “fuck you” to America’s rapidly expanding consumerism of the late ‘60s. (The film’s original ending really did have a sky-plane writing, “Fuck You, America”; unsurprisingly, it was rejected.) Sympathizing with the counterculture movement of the time, its two protagonists — initially disillusioned in a characteristically Antonionian way — do attempt to implement their ideas, failing which they endeavor at least to dream about them in an explosively radical fashion. Chung Kuo, Cina, his three-part television documentary, is much less of a call-to-action film but rather a curiously self-reflexive and experiential work about the People’s Republic of China, made at the behest of Chairman Mao himself. Its depiction of the country and its Maoist values is, unsurprisingly, primarily positive, and only the narrator’s stray comments about their restricted access to major shooting locations qualify as an overt critique of the State’s now-documented totalitarianism.

Despite (or perhaps because of) their political clarity, both these projects received heavy criticism, most dishearteningly — for Antonioni — by the leftist groups that he supported. His cinema of inaction conflicted with the era’s political activism in Zabriskie Point; his honest, matter-of-fact observations as a stranger to a foreign land in Chung Kuo, Cina included passages that didn’t conform to the picture-perfect depiction of Maoist China desired by the state. The anti-Antonioni reaction against the latter was especially vitriolic, with the Communist government banning the film in 1974. The Passenger was thus made when Antonioni was going through a phase of professional discontentment. Whether intentional or otherwise, it serves as an intersection of the other films: an idyllic common ground where Zabriskie Point and Chung Kuo, Cina’s political clarity greets Blow-Up’s ambiguity. At least, that’s where our protagonist, John Locke (Jack Nicholson), wishes to be. Burnt out from his passive role as a war reporter in Africa, Locke wants to “trade his identity” with that of David Robertson, another white man who’s an active participant in a radical separatist fight against what appears to be an authoritarian government in Chad. The details of the country’s political struggles and leaders are intentionally hazy; the active foreign participant remains distant in a war not involving himself. But is it possible for Locke to escape his discontented self and emerge into radical political consciousness?

The film’s unforgettable opening twenty-five minutes answer this question in the most beguiling way. Its first eleven-minute stretch has Antonioni operating at the height of his power as a visual storyteller; almost everything about Locke’s role as the titular “passenger,” punctuated by his breaking point, is communicated visually. The Passenger’s very first shot depicts Locke as a stranger lost in a tiny village in the middle of the Saharan Desert. Cinematographer Luciano Tovoli uses an extreme wide shot, not so much to establish the film’s setting but to highlight our protagonist’s displaced, unimportant position within it. Antonioni repeatedly uses such long shots throughout this stretch to dwarf Locke’s presence within a space that’s alien to him, and he occasionally “forgets” to follow his protagonist — the camera pans or tracks before Locke motivates it. This “lag” is, arguably, the most apt representation of Locke’s helpless passivity as a foreigner, for even the camera, as much of a stranger to these surroundings as Locke, knows more than him and “drives” him toward the action.

The final shot of this near-wordless eleven-minute sequence verbalizes what’s already been expressed quietly. Locke’s Jeep, the one thing he controls, also gets stuck in desert sand. He repeatedly tries to dig its tires out but ultimately gives up, falling to the ground and shouting, “All right! I don’t care!” It’s the only loud, declaratively performative moment uncharacteristically tender of Nicholson’s onscreen presence, making his desperate cry for help here doubly impactful. Following which, he seeks an escape from passivity. This is the film’s pivotal sequence: Antonioni, narratively and formally, counters the opening eleven minutes’ stark, precisely stylized realism with an unflashy and hence even more hypnotic touch of surrealism. After returning to his hotel on foot, a physically and mentally exhausted Locke calls out for Robertson, and, upon entering his room, finds Robertson lying on his stomach on his bed, dead. Rummaging through the dead man’s belongings, Locke comes across his diary. As soon as he flips it open, we hear a soft but high-pitched beep fill the silence, somehow more calming than distracting. The absence of non-diegetic sound has played such a critical role in conveying Locke’s isolation until now, that its sudden presence pushes The Passenger, strangely, into a realm of (momentary) connection. The two-shot — of Locke looking at Robertson, thinking of becoming him — materializes this feeling conjured up by the mysteriously meditative note still percolating through the atmosphere.

But once the music fades away, Locke still hasn’t decided whether he wants to become Robertson. As he continues to examine the similarities between his and Robertson’s passport photographs, an even more confounding non-diegetic audio track takes over: it’s the first conversation between the two men. The camera, initially focused on Locke’s face, begins to drift gently away from him, determined to fill in the visual absence of the voiceover, willing to bend the rules of space and time to open a literal and metaphorical window to the past. And yet, for every moment that tries to push past Locke’s passive reality, another instance pushes back. Even in this most transcendental sequence, Antonioni ensures that we, like Locke, don’t get carried away. He intercuts the magical intrusion of the past with the concrete reality of the present. The fluidity of moving from one moment to another, one identity to another, is undercut by showing the mechanical process of Locke cutting, replacing, and pasting his photo onto Robertson’s passport. Furthermore, the dialogue between the two men – initially perceived as a non-diegetic jolt to Locke’s desolate reality — is also demystified. Antonioni reveals the audio source to be Locke’s tape recorder — a device he plays to presumably convince himself of the possibility of escaping from himself.

Antonioni’s screenplay (co-written by Mark Peploe, Peter Wollen, and Enrico Sannia) bifurcates the rest of The Passenger’s narrative to maintain this tension between Locke’s ability to become Robertson and his inability to unbecome himself. The former is the film’s driving narrative: Locke drifts from country to country, dutifully following Robertson’s meeting schedule to shape his identity bit by bit around him. He relocates from Chad to England, then to Germany, and finally to Spain, where he meets an unnamed young woman (the elusive Maria Schneider) who encourages him to keep following this path. But (narrative) speed bumps consistently disrupt Locke’s forward movement; the parallel narrative involves Rachel (Jenny Runacre), Locke’s estranged wife, piecing together the reasons behind her husband’s death. This search, more than a detailed investigation of her character, is representative of the consistent presence of John Locke, objective war reporter. In a way, it marks a grand narrativization of another moment in the film, when Locke-as-Robertson tells (or rather shows) the young woman that what he is running away from is also chasing him.

The closer the impending collision gets, the less certain hitherto established things and places get. The Modernist buildings in Barcelona that the woman describes as “big enough for [Locke] to hide in for days” flatten into the sparse, desert terrain of Almería (also in Spain) that, yes, provides more room to move in, but also provides more vantage points for searching eyes to spot our protagonist’s movement. The silences and stillness, earlier symbols of peace and calm, also become signs of threat and tension. When the collision eventually happens, the feeling that dominates, even more so than uncertainty, is that of profound sadness. The penultimate six-minute take of The Passenger, now (rightfully) championed as a significant technical achievement, mirrors to some extent the initial sequence of identity transference between Locke and Robertson. But the movement in this shot is not towards an open window of infinite possibilities. It is, in fact, a circling back to the distanced, “objective” reality trapped inside a barred window. It is also, perversely enough, precisely the moment Locke becomes Robertson.

The Passenger’s aching tragedy comes from its acknowledgment of our protagonist’s inability to escape his own self when he’s alive. People, as Locke describes it to Robertson in their first conversation, “translate every situation, every experience into the same old codes.” They are “creatures of habit,” unable to escape their constructed and rehearsed identities. For Locke, this means always remaining impartial, observing his and other lives from the sidelines. For Antonioni, there’s a dispiriting realization that there is, perhaps, no meeting ground between Blow-Up and Zabriskie Point or Chung Kuo, Cina. His cinema of inaction, despite being endowed with concrete clarity, will always remain too fragile to become radically political. But it’s precisely that fragility — a spontaneous moment of connection, a sudden realization of purpose, a momentary liberation from the burden of an otherwise mournfully futile world — that makes The Passenger feel hauntingly alive. Antonioni’s failed search for permanent escape provides us, in the strangest way possible, with a reason to try.

Part of Kicking the Canon — The Film Canon