Forgotten thriller takes us for a ride

Staff WriterDecember 16, 2005 

Jack Nicholson and Maria Schneider star in an ironic, angst-filled, artfully plodding thriller characteristic of its moviemaking period, 1975.

A 30-year-old film, "The Passenger" is being hailed as director Michelangelo Antonioni's finest work as a theatrical re-release has it playing in the country's art houses.

Isn't it astounding what three decades and a lack of video availability can do for a film that was considered a dud upon its initial release? I wonder if the same thing could happen to a movie like, say, "Phat Beach?" What, you've never heard of it? Well, give it another 16 years.

But seriously, if you're not hip to Antonioni's other, similarly heralded films ("L'Aventurra," "Blow-Up"), you're likely to find the pace and minimal action of "The Passenger" a bit tedious, especially in the restored-cut version that clocks in at more than two hours.

However, if you're well-versed in all things Antonioni -- you even saw that near-self-parodic episode he did in "Eros" earlier this year -- you will find its thriller-where-barely-anything-thrilling-happens premise all the more stimulating.

"The Passenger" (original title: "Professione: reporter") could very well be referring to the audience, as Antonioni crams the film with enough slow, wide-shot camera pans to give the impression we're eavesdropping on the movie.

The audience takes a backseat to the story of David Locke, played by Jack Nicholson in one of his few understated performances. A British-American journalist stranded and frustrated in North Africa, he decides to fake his own death by switching identities with a recently deceased guy he hung out with at his hotel. That alone takes nearly a half-hour to set up.

Molasses-slow as the film may be, there is something fascinating in this story of a man not only running away from his personal and professional life, but nefarious figures out to put an end to his dealings. (Turns out his drinking buddy was an international gun-runner.) Just as he attempts to re-invent a life free of the malaise and corruption his previous one had, he accidentally immerses himself in life-threatening intrigue.

Antonioni has called "Passenger" his most political film -- indeed, one of the most haunting moments is real footage of the execution of a political prisoner. But themes of alienation, isolation and existential angst -- all Antonioni staples -- pop up here, too. Even with a free-spirited girl, billed in the credits as Girl (Maria Schneider, that dewy object of desire from "Last Tango in Paris") along for the ride, Nicholson's Locke takes on the role of doomed loner. His inability to escape the trappings of his existence slowly but surely dawns on him.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in the hypnotic, seven-minute, single-take climax. Beginning with a tired Locke in his hotel room, the camera slowly (of course!) peers out through his window, slides through bars, and goes outside as it turns back around and focuses on the room for the finale. We're waiting for the inevitable just as he is.

The scene takes its precious time, but only to show how well-executed Antonioni wanted the payoff to be. Looks like "The Passenger" is an old, forgotten movie worth praising, and revisiting, after all.

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