Posted by Alistair.
The Passenger (aka Professione: reporter, 1975), which came out on DVD two weeks ago after being re-released in theaters in late 2005, is a rare find in the movie world. It's a critically-praised film made by a famed director, with universally known and incredibly talented actors—all of whom are performing at or near the peaks of their respective careers—and yet it is and has been virtually unheard of. It's natural to ask with a movie like this why that is. Is there good reason we've never heard of it? Thankfully The Passenger is a lost gem, not a discarded one.
This isn't initially obvious. From the first shot of a sand-swept street in Africa, as Jack Nicholson is slowly brought into visibility and then, even more slowly, into the foreground, it is clear that this film requires a good amount of patience. The cinematic problems seem to multiply from there. Director Michelangelo Antonioni often seems as preoccupied with the movie's scenery as with its plot. There are less than thirty minutes of dialogue in the entire movie. And there is a constant sense of having missed some crucial detail as to who anybody on the screen is, or what drives them. But what initially appear to be drawbacks soon unfold into the film's very strengths. Antonioni focuses on imagery precisely because he knows the imagery that matters, and given the abundance of lush locations he's provided us—from the barren, harshly beautiful deserts of Africa to the dusty, colorful streets and rooftops of Western Europe—there's hardly a moment where something beautiful doesn't pass before our eyes (including the film's leads, the mischievous-as-ever Nicholson, and the sultry French belle Maria Schneider). Although the dialogue may be minimal to a fault, nearly every line holds a gentle touch of the poetic. What is at first shocking is then wholly satisfying when we realize that the ambiguity within the characters is not a flaw, but the very point.
Because of Antonioni's idiosyncratic technique and commitment to building slowly, you may be well into the film's second act before you realize you are watching a continental thriller, replete with guns, chases, politics, and a love interest; sort of an art-film rendition of The Bourne Supremacy. Nicholson plays a reporter writing a piece on civil unrest in Africa. Bored with his job and feeling trapped, Nicholson takes the only out he can, switching identities with the only other American in town after inadvertently discovering that man's corpse. Upon rifling through the man's belongings, Nicholson learns that the man was a gunrunner affiliated with a radical militia having backers in Europe. He then stumbles head first into the other man's life, but finds himself trapped and forced to enlist the help of a French tourist, Schneider (who may or may not work for the militia), in order to escape from both the police and his increasingly suspicious wife.
Upon hearing of her husband's death, the reporter's wife (played by Jenny Runacre) is told that her husband was "An excellent reporter—a very detached man, but a brilliant observer". And it is through eyes like these that the world of The Passenger is shown to us. We catch the film's characters, walking down labyrinthine European streets from afar, indistinguished figures among several others. The camera will often follow a particular scene only to be thwarted by a closed door, a dead end, a place we are not allowed to intrude. Several of the film's most poignant moments are glimpsed from the outside, through a window or some other obscuring object.
For all its similarities to bestselling spy novels, this movie is of an entirely different character. The moment at which Nicholson decides to do away with his old self is practically an aside, as are all of the daring chase scenes, the near captures, and the wife's insistence that something about her husband's death does not add up. We don't see the seduction that occurs between Schneider and Nicholson, or the love that somehow develops, only the effects of these causes. We are treated rather to the existential views of pointlessness (borrowed heavily from Camus and from Godard's masterpiece Breathless), expressed by Nicholson and Schneider in their more tender moments together, and the warmly terrifying notion that anything we experience in life does not really matter, at least not more than anything else. After all, life is nothing but a series of events that we cannot control; quite the contrary: they control us. And we're all of us just passengers along for the ride.