Available mainly on atrocious pan-and-scan VHS for the last 20 years, Michelangelo Antonioni's 1975 The Passenger finally sees the big-screen light of day at this year's 43rd New York Film Festival (with an ensuing theatrical run in New York City scheduled for later in the month), its mesmerizing intensity fully restored in the director's preferred 126-minute cut. In many circles regarded as one of Antonioni's lesser ennui-infected efforts, the director's crowning masterpiece is actually something akin to a career summation, merging form and content in such marvelous harmony that the film's beguiling, espionage-tinged mystery becomes a mere afterthought when compared with the way said narrative's thematic preoccupations are echoed by its deliberately disorienting structure.
A fatalistic tale of identity, destiny, coincidence, existential malaise, and the boundaries between the real and the imagined, Antonioni's pensive examination of the deceptive, destructive sway that dreams hold on their creators derives its magic from a deliberate inscrutability, an opaqueness in which familiar storytelling conventions are upended, and clear-cut analysis and categorization prove frustratingly insufficient. As it hurtles toward its climactic moment of transcendent liberation, The Passenger offers only answers that lead to more questions, its larger meaning(s) as open to interpretation as the vast Saharan desert that provides the film's initial setting.
Ironically utilizing a straightforward thriller premise as the jumping-off point for a decidedly suspense-free portrait of spiritual and psychological turmoil, Antonioni's film begins with a reporter named David Locke (played by Jack Nicholson with impassive reserve and bemused black humor) who, in remote Africa finishing up work on a documentary about insurgent Chad rebels combating a tyrannical government, meets a talkative stranger named Robertson (Charles Mulvehill) who suddenly dies of a heart attack in an adjacent hotel room (and who will later be revealed as a much sought-after gunrunner). Upon discovering the corpse, Locke—an unhappily married journalist disgusted by (or "locked" in by, as it were) the "rules" that govern his work and his life—promptly assumes the man's identity. This procedure begins with Locke staring deeply into the bed-splayed Robertson's eyes (framed as an instance of intimate absorption and transference) and then carefully switching his passport's photo with Robertson's. Antonioni links this latter act of documentation editing (beautifully interspersed with flashbacks of the men's tape-recorded first conversation) to the fundamental process of moviewatching, with Locke's desire to wholly identify himself with a foreign personality depicted as not only "acting," but also as synonymous with film viewers' desire to picture themselves as, and therefore vicariously live through the experiences of, fictional on-screen characters.
Alas, Locke's attempt to reinvent himself—a casting off his actual self in favor of a fantasy self—is a fool's game, as his shouldering of Robertson's business schedule, commitments, and lifelong baggage proves to be less of an escape than the same dreary prison by another name. "I want to inquire about flights" are Locke's first words after "becoming" Robertson, and throughout the film his odyssey is cast as a flight from the past, whether it be a shot of Locke obscured by bird cages while running from his TV producer Martin Knight (Ian Hendry), a sterling view from the back of Locke's speeding car, or the startling overhead image of a euphoric Locke, his arms outstretched like wings, dangling above the ocean from a gondola lift. Nevertheless, when an old man nearby kids tells Locke, "When I watch them, I just see the same old tragedy starting again," the existentialism-laden film makes clear that the path to the grave is inescapable, regardless of the clothes one dons or the surname one adopts. In The Passenger, the only motif more omnipresent than doubling is that of spirals (sand swirling in the wind, spherical tire marks in the dust outside Locke's ultimate resting place, a spinning fan, or Antonioni's twisting camera maneuvers), a coiled pattern which speaks to the fact that the circle of life, despite one's earthly deeds, ends right where it begins: with nothingness.
By the time its antihero meets his unceremonious demise, The Passenger has proven Locke's clever personality switch to be a doomed endeavor, just as Antonioni's own subtle distancing techniques have prevented audiences from identifying with the reporter-turned-arms dealer. Antonioni's camera chronically assumes Locke's viewpoint via graceful pans, only to sometimes do just the opposite, taking on the perspectives of Locke's wife Rachel (Jenny Runacre), Martin, or "The Girl" (Last Tango in Paris's Maria Schneider) whom Locke encounters while fleeing both his former life and the shady military figures who want to stop Robertson's scheduled ammunition transactions. Such an inconsistent point of view is Antonioni's means of keeping us physically and emotionally detached from Locke—a goal exemplified by the scene in which we're refused access to Locke's conversation inside the aforementioned gondola—just as Locke is increasingly alienated from his original persona. By disengaging from its identity-bifurcated central character, The Passenger not only reveals its ambition to rebel against comforting spectator expectations, but also helps generate a trancelike mood of existential diffusion. And as Locke's globetrotting expedition progresses, the film's languorously drifting gaze, its disorienting editing, and its imposingly serene and silent vistas of the immense natural world (the North African desert, Barcelona's towering Gaudi architecture) produce a sense of otherworldly foreboding, of the boundaries between reality and illusion slowly crumbling way.
One could reasonably argue that Antonioni's intriguing film—a heady vortex of competing, clashing ideas—is best understood through the filter of religion (Locke's story being one about moving beyond the mortal coil, or of Hindu-influenced reincarnation), philosophy (Locke's journey progressing from the realm of the mind to that of the body), or genre deconstructionist theory (as the film at times feels like the strangest, most elliptical neo-noir ever made). All three critical approaches certainly could be applied to the film's brilliant penultimate shot, a seven-minute-plus tour de force in which Antonioni's gradually creeping camera—perhaps embodying the point of view of Locke's departing spirit, or maybe just functioning as the director's instrument for breaking free from the constraints of traditional cinematic grammar (and technical logistics)—impossibly passes through an iron-barred window, onto the street where Locke's pursuers have gathered, and then turns back around to present the discovery of Locke's lifeless body lying (like Robertson's at film's onset) on a dilapidated hotel room bed. Fusing the physical with the metaphysical in this legendary sequence, Antonioni finally shows us what's on "the other side of the window," and in the process crafts an enigmatic coda to his cautionary tale about a disaffected man who learns the hard way that fantasies are best left for daydreams; to make them real is to disastrously sap them of their power.