- The Washington Times - Friday, November 25, 2005

“The Passenger,” exclusively at the Landmark E Street Cinema, is not one of the Michelangelo Antonioni movies likely to repay a fresh look. Originally released in May of 1975 by MGM, the movie was shown an excess of deference by die-hard admirers, perhaps flattered that the director had left a vacuum for critics to fill or explain away.

In retrospect, it seems even more curious and maladroit that the vacuum was contrived to surround Jack Nicholson, a naturally demonstrative, humorously flamboyant actor ill-suited to portray the hollow-man protagonist Mr. Antonioni had systematically exhausted. (The definitive pitiful specimen was Gabrielle Ferzetti in “L’Avventura,” the pre-eminent Antonioni movie, 15 years earlier.)

By the time Mr. Nicholson was meandering from North Africa to London to Munich to Barcelona to Almeria as David Locke, a feckless TV journalist who impulsively decides to trade identities with a dead man, even the hollowness had been hollowed out. The critics who recognized that the enervated and demoralized Locke was already a goner couldn’t take much credit for penetrating insight.

If anything, “The Passenger” was the movie in which Mr. Antonioni, who recently turned 93, appeared to be emptying the creative well down to the last muddy drops.

In his previous MGM fiasco, “Zabriskie Point,” the preposterously oversold and deflating hippie rhapsody of 1970, the director stranded himself in Death Valley. “The Passenger” found him lost in the desert again, this time a North African desert, with Algeria meant to simulate Chad, or anywhere uprisings were topical.

Locke, based in London, evidently needs to slake a thirst for exclusive interviews with rebel leaders, in the spirit of Lowell Thomas tracking T.E. Lawrence. In fact, the early sequences suggest Michelangelo Antonioni struggling to channel the spirit of David Lean during “Lawrence of Arabia.” He gives it up as a false start. What follows is a prolonged delaying scenario distinguished pictorially by rugged, austere landscapes and all too fleeting cityscapes until Locke is ready to lie down and die.

This anticlimax is nestled inside a tediously affected shot sequence designed to slide the camera from an inside-looking-out position in Locke’s street-level hotel room to the reverse outside-looking-in vantage point. There was a great deal of praise at the time for this flourish, more welcome as a practical matter because it cued spectators that the funeral was just about over.

Like “Blow-Up,” which began the director’s MGM deal with a fashionable hit in 1967, “The Passenger” bears superficial resemblances to a conventional mystery thriller. Locke borrows the identity of a disarming commercial traveler named Robertson (Chuck Mulvehill), who turns out to have been a gun-runner to the very rebels the journalist is seeking. One can imagine an intriguing melodrama growing out of the pretext. Unfortunately, there’s nothing compelling about Locke’s halfhearted way of pursuing danger.

To the extent that he’s characterized, lackluster Locke inspires no confidence as sleuth, impostor or amorist. The film generates scant incentive to care about the gradual expiration of a character who fails to embody much life or establish urgent claims on credibility or sympathy.

The Barcelona sequences, in which Mr. Nicholson acquires a companion, Maria Schneider, the baby-faced sex kitten from “Last Tango in Paris,” provide some diversion. Not that the characters or actors prove a stimulating match. Miss Schneider is so careful with her English that she’s zestless, compounding the inertia that deadens Mr. Nicholson’s role.

They hang around Gaudi’s Palaccio Guell for a while, allowing generous footage of both interiors and exteriors, including a view from the rooftop. The tourist option is the best card in Mr. Antonioni’s hand.

Locke may have been a murky self-portrait of the filmmaker himself. Mr. Antonioni had been the toast of moviegoing radicals in the United States while “Zabriskie Point” was a work in progress. In the interval between it and “The Passenger,” he made a pilgrimage to Mao’s China and returned as some kind of deluded and pious apologist.

When explaining “The Passenger” for the press kit, he mused, “In China, when I asked them what was the thing they felt was most important in their revolution, they said it was the new man. That is what I tried to focus on. Each individual, each one creating his own little revolution, all those little revolutions which together will change humanity.”

The movie’s propaganda utility is undercut by the fact that it expresses a mood of futility rather than renewal. There is something irresistibly poignant and funny in the spectacle of an exquisitely withdrawn, ruminative artistic personality who makes a fool of himself while given the red-carpet treatment in Hollywood of the late 1960s and then communist China in the 1970s. That definitely was a treacherous passage.


TITLE: “The Passenger”

RATING: PG (Fleeting profanity, violence and sexual allusions)

CREDITS: Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni. Screenplay by Mark Peploe, Peter Wollen and Mr. Antonioni. Cinematography by Luciano Tovoli. Art direction by Piero Poletto. Costumes by Louise Stjernsward.

RUNNIING TIME: 125 minutes

WEB SITE: www.sonypicturesclassics.com


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