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December 05, 2005

The Passenger

Professione: Reporter
Michelangelo Antonioni - 1975
Sony Pictures Classic 35mm

Last night I was checking in at Metacritic just to get a sense of the critical reaction to some of the newer films. I noticed that The Passenger was one of the highest rated films. What struck me, though, was in looking at the reviews by some of the Metacritic "users" were extremely negative, although everyone agreed that the film was well photographed.

I finally saw The Passenger today in it's official re-release. The only time I saw it theatrically that I recall was in its initial release in 1975. I also caught part of the end on television one night. In his book, The American Cinema, Andrew Sarris refers to "Antoniennui". While The Passenger was always a demanding film requiring an active viewer, I am not surprised if it even more challenging for a younger audience. The stripped down dialogue and camera that replicates the gaze of a somewhat distant observer are what distinguish this film. Essentially, The Passenger is the opposite of most current Anglo-American filmmaking which is usually talk heavy, with an emphasise on visual technique, and ear-splittingly noisy.

When visual and verbal underlining are the norm, a film like The Passenger must be even more frustrating for some audience members. Minutes go by with people not talking to each other. Attempts at communication are often undermined by language barriers. Even exchanges in English are uncertain if words or names are codes understood by one but not the other. One of the key scenes is when Jack Nicholson is filming an interview with an African identified as a Witch Doctor. The question is posed that that there must be a contradiction to be both Western educated and be a Witch Doctor. The Witch Doctor turns the camera around to focus on Nicholson. Antonioni is reminding us that all observation is subjective, and that observations made through a cultural lens are the least objective. Throughout The Passenger, relationships and motivations remain unexplained. The film can be seen as a kind of compliment to Blow-Up by deliberately leaving unsolved mysteries.

From an interview in the bookEncountering Directors, Antonioni stated: "You know what I would like to do: make a film with actors standing in empty space so that the spectator would have to imagine the background of the characters. Till now I have never shot a scene without taking account of what stands behind the actors because the relationship between people and their surroundings is of prime importance. I mean simply to say that I want my characters to suggest the background in themselves, even when it is not visible. I want them to be so powerfully realized that we cannot imagine them apart from their physical and social context even when we see them in empty space."

I'm not certain if Antonioni has quite made the film he's discribed. Certainly his own filmic journey has gone from a symbolic Red Desert to stranding Jack Nicholson in the very real red and white deserts.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at December 5, 2005 03:58 PM