Friday, August 10, 2007

Film Review #116: The Passenger
Director: Michelangelo Antonioni
Cast: Jack Nicholson, Maria Schneider

It’s one of the most penetrating stares on-screen this side of the Vulcan mind-meld. TV journalist David Locke (Jack Nicholson), annoyed that his hotel room’s shower has no soap, has gone next door to borrow some. In search of a civil war whose guerilla forces keep melting away, he’s just walked miles back to this sweltering, dirty, fly speck of a town through the southern Chad desert. His guides have left him. His Land Rover sits mired fender-deep in drifting sand. Locke’s had a few drinks with this guy, David Robertson (film producer Charley Mulvehill, who resembles Nicholson), and instead of soap Locke finds him dead.

Hovering above Robertson’s face, Locke sees they look enough alike to pass for one another. In that moment, as he later tells a character named only “the girl” – an architecture student who provides him with some background on the bizarrely irregular Barcelona buildings of Antonio Gaudì and then briefly becomes his lover (Maria Schneider, fresh from Last Tango in Paris) – he traded himself in for a “new one.” Switching passports, belongings and rooms, Locke correctly assumes that Europeans look alike to the desk clerk. Soon he’s catching planes, keeping the dead man’s appointments – Munich, Barcelona, finally the Spanish town of Osuna. Now he’s an arms smuggler for the rebels who eluded him as a reporter. Once Locke’s wife collects his effects and sees the doctored passport with its photo of a stranger, she pursues him, as do the dictator’s agents. In a single seven-minute tracking shot that squeezes through the grate in Locke’s hotel room window and finally meanders back, all these and miscellaneous more converge in Osuna’s dusty plaza, where a car’s muffler back-firing might instead have been an executioner’s shot.

The Passenger premiered at Cannes in 1975 to great consternation because, to the tastes of that day, it left so much unresolved. Not Michelangelo Antonioni’s best known film, we now recognize it as among his best-made and, as Nicholson notes on one of two commentary tracks (the other with screenwriter Mark Peploe), as fresh as yesterday’s headlines – right down to the gun-runner’s date book with its eerily significant September 11th appointment at the Hotel de la Gloria. With Antonioni dead last week at 94, it’s the film I went back to first and it’s the one I’d want someone to start with.

The Passenger has a past whose contortions mimic the film’s own explorations of what comprises the "full story." Sony Pictures released its DVD in 2005 after special screening at Lincoln Center’s 43rd New York Film Festival and limited theatrical runs on both coasts. The theatrical trailer for that choreographed re-entry hailed The Passenger as a “lost masterpiece” and advertised the “director’s preferred cut.” Not exactly.

Antonioni’s four-hour original emerged in an edited version just under 150 minutes – then pared to 126 minutes, finally stripped some more to 119 minutes at MGM’s demand for North American release. Although that film played art houses for a decade, Antonioni would condemn those deep cuts in 1983 – the same year Nicholson’s Proteus Films bought the negative. Nicholson then acquired world rights in 1986, sat on the film until VHS licensing (and a single Japanese DVD edition) expired in the 90s and finally made a deal with Sony. Sony’s current 126-minute version restored Locke’s secret trip back to his home in London (where he discovers his wife Rachel’s lover Stephen via a note taped to the bedroom door), but another 20 minutes that Antonioni judged crucial still remain missing.

Yet The Passenger shows a master’s hand and eye. While Antonioni has really been branded at this point as a purveyor of ennui and elusiveness, there’s an almost lyrical quality to this film. Locke’s quest for freedom remains at the heart of all the twisted, dirtied paths he takes. Speaking as Robertson the first time, this man who from the first is usually clad in aviator’s sunglasses says, “I’d like to inquire about flights.” In Barcelona, he escapes from his former producer Martin behind a rack of caged birds at a sidewalk market. Antonioni’s camera catches Locke, arms stretched like wings over the water, from above the cable gondola he takes across a bay on a sunny afternoon. And a delicate birdsong outside Locke’s window commences the last scene.

Remembered with admiration by his London colleagues for his professional “detachment,” Locke hears from the rebel Achebe, honored to finally meet “Robertson” in a Munich church, that the gun-runner is “different from the others – you care about our cause.” When Locke has missed Robertson’s other appointments – Achebe has been arrested – and thinks he’ll walk away once more, the girl reminds him that Robertson “believed in something – I thought you wanted that.” Locke’s interview with the dictator – which Martin intends to excerpt for a documentary memorializing Locke – is a failure in his wife’s eyes and his own, precisely because he accepted obvious lies about a civil war the dictator assures him does not exist. She reminds Martin, “I was there for that interview,” and then Antonioni obligingly offers a flashback of what transpired outside the frame.

And The Passenger is a brilliant, prophetic catalogue of the ways truth morphs, distorts and erodes when politics and media meet, through the expectations and collusion of both reporters and their audiences in making intelligible images to explain events. In what becomes a litany of accusation against the reliability of so-called evidence, in a film full of mirrors’ reflections and window panes through which we see the story, one “document” after another – passports, hotel registers, journalist’s interview tapes, official governmental assurances – fails to sustain proof when we look behind its surface.

The film’s elasticity even invites new meanings – jostling whatever post-9/11 viewers bring to Robertson’s date-book, for example, that might reinforce today’s stereotypes about Africa and other non-Western cultures, about Muslims, about terrorism and rebellion. Some reviewers have also suggested that Robertson’s datebook echoes Pinochet’s military coup in Chile. But there's a closer-to-home reference, since Antonioni uses the buildings of Barcelona-born architect Gaudì so extensively. Gaudì’s buildings have great visual power as settings for a story of a man whose reality has become warped. ThatThe Girl offers some historical details about who the architect was invites us to go ahead and do the same - that architect was an ethnic Catalan nationalist in a region once a sovereign nation, until defeat by Spain forces on September 11, 1714. That date is still mourned annually in that region. In fact, Gaudì was arrested on September 11th in 1924, two years before his death, for speaking the banned Catalan language at a banned church service commemorating the date. Antonioni uses Gaudì’s work to remind us that the heart of darkness under which official suppression of truth occurs is, as Robertson tells Locke, pretty much everywhere. Antonioni’s work is ever new in urging us to look again.

This review appeared in the 8/9/07 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing DVDs of recent films that did not open theatrically in CNY & older films of enduring worth.