Largely unavailable to American audiences for nearly three decades (save for the release of an atrociously pan-and-scanned videocassette that is also long out of print), Michaelangelo Antonioni’s “The Passenger” has returned to the screen and it is strangely comforting to realize that it is just as odd and bewildering to behold today as it must have been in 1975. In fact, the simple act of watching it is a stark reminder of just how conventional most films and filmmakers have become these days–precious few people would have the nerve to make something this defiantly oblique and no major American studio would dare to finance of distribute it.In a quiet and subdued performance, Jack Nicholson stars as David Locke,a British TV reporter (think David Frost) who has grown disenchanted with his entire existence. While out in the African desert looking for rebels to interview for a documentary, he discovers that his next-door neighbor at his hotel–another middle-aged man whom he superficially resembles–has dropped dead; impulsively, David decides to abandon his own life and assume the man’s identity. With the assistance of a sexy tourist (Maria Schneider), David impulsively decides to follow the appointments in the man’s datebook–the man turns out to have some dark secrets of his own and, without realizing it, David spends so much time running from his own life that he winds up potentially stumbling into another man’s death.<
Although this might sound like the premise for an exciting thriller, Antonioni is more interested in exploring the inner turmoil and ennui of his characters than in putting them through the paces of a conventional action film. As a result, I suspect that most contemporary audiences will find themselves as alienated with the film as the central character is with his life and even those with a taste for Antonioni’s elliptical narratives would probably have to admit that works such as “L’Avventura” and “Blow-Up” dealt with similar material in a far more compelling manner (and neither had the additional handicap of the weak performance by Schneider, in her only significant post-“Last Tango in Paris” role). Nevertheless, “The Passenger” has more than its share of virtues–a strong central performance from Nicholson, gorgeous visuals from cinematographer Luciano Tovoli and a couple of sequences–a moment in which Schneider is seen standing in the back of a car as it drives off into the countryside and the famous extended closing scene that is shot in one take–that still retain their power after nearly 30 years.Best of all, “The Passenger” is a film that, like “2001" or “Apocalypse Now” or much of Antonioni’s best work, refuses to tie things up at the end and forces the viewer to actively engage with it in order to understand it–at a time when most commercial films seems to have done all the thinking for the audience ahead of time, it is always nice to encounter one that will inspire endless debates as to what it all means.