Movie Review – The Passenger

The Passenger (1975)
Written by Mark Peploe, Michelangelo Antonioni, and Peter Wollen
Directed by Michelangelo Antonioni

This will be our last stop with the filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni, though he kept making films. It will have to be another time when we look at his work outside his four Monica Vitti films and his MGM trilogy, but we’re ending on an exceptionally high note. Financially this was not a success, and in the aftermath, Jack Nicholson was sold the rights after a dispute between him and MGM over another picture in development. The Passenger would sit on a shelf for three decades after its initial release, a film thought to be lost and only recaptured by going back to read the old reviews. In 2006, it finally received a DVD release and could be rediscovered by a new generation. It’s a dense picture, full of Antonioni’s common themes but lots of new settings and political ideas surfacing. The result is another enigmatic film that performs a kind of hypnosis on the viewer, a picture that is multiple things at once and deserving of considerable examination. 

David Locke (Nicholson) is a television journalist in the process of making a documentary about post-colonial Africa. As part of this project, he is in Chad preparing to interview rebels engaged in a civil war. The problem is that the insurgents want to avoid going in front of a camera because it risks their lives, so he is searching fruitlessly. Minor annoyances become more significant obstacles until his Land Rover becomes stuck in a sand dune. After a hike through the desert, Locke returns to his hotel and discovers something tragic. He had chatted up one of his neighbors in the hotel, Robertson, and found the man had died suddenly in his sleep.

Locke realizes this is an opportunity; he and Robertson resemble each other enough that he switches identities. As Robertson, he reports Locke’s death to the front desk, and no one even notices this is a lie. In London, news of Locke’s death arrives, and Rachel (Jenny Runacre), his wife, is heartbroken and full of guilt. She is having an affair behind her husband’s back. She reaches out to Locke’s producer friend Martin to see if he can get her in touch with this good samaritan named Robertson, who was with her husband when he died. Rachel wants Robertson to fill her in on her late husband’s final days.

Locke is entirely subsuming himself in this man’s identity, using Robertson’s passport and appointment book to keep in step with what the dead man had planned. He flies to Munich and finds a locker in the airport with photographs of small armaments and a price list. A moment of serendipity occurs when Locke leaves the airport and decides to follow a white horse he sees, which leads him to a wedding which he quietly crashes. After the wedding, two men following Locke (believing he is Robertson) approach him and want to know why he hasn’t gotten in touch about the documents. He hands over what he found, and in exchange, they give him an envelope of cash. They say the second half of the payment is waiting for him in Barcelona. 

Locke begins putting the pieces together and realizes Robertson was a black market arms dealer selling weapons to the same rebels with whom Locke was trying to get interviews. Following this path, Locke ends up in Barcelona. He is almost caught when he sees Martin there on his search for Robertson. While hiding in a La Pedrera, a building designed by the architect Gaudi (more on him later), Locke meets The Girl (Maria Schneider), an architecture student. Locke implores his new friend to go to his hotel and fetch his bags because he is being followed. She complies, but Martin overhears her mention the name Robertson to the desk clerk. The Girl says she will take him to the man he seeks but loses him after hopping in a taxi.

Locke has a stack of cash and has started a love affair with this twenty-something stranger. He could not follow through on Robertson’s promises of weapons sales even if he wanted to. But there are meetings in the appointment book, and Locke keeps following that schedule. He doesn’t know that the Chadian government has found the men brokering the arms deal and left them for dead after torturing them. Now they are looking for Robertson. Martin returns to Rachel, and she is stunned when she goes through her husband’s belongings. Her husband’s passport has a stranger’s face pasted on it; the man we know is Robertson. She goes to Spain herself to find out what is really going on.

Locke and The Girl part ways briefly, with a plan to meet up in Tangiers. They eventually do, and The Girl now assumes the name Mrs. Robertson, the dead man’s wife. Locke feels that something terrible is going to happen. He sends The Girl away as the next appointment looms. The camera follows her into the dusty square outside the hotel. She wanders around with a single frame, and things happen around her. We never see the appointment. When The Girl finally decides to go back inside, she passes by the agents of Chad’s government seen earlier. Rachel arrives with the police in tow. They all find Locke dead in his bed, much like Robertson was found.

A question is asked by the police if these women can identify the body. Rachel says she never really knew him. The Girl responds simply, “Yes.”

While watching The Passenger for this review, my first time ever watching it, I immediately recognized the architect of the building that Locke hid inside when he was in Barcelona. I have no background in architecture, but I know a few of the big names and the elements of their style. I told my wife, “I think that is a building made by Gaudi.” I knew this because he was so distinct, his buildings curving and flowing. The fact that The Girl is an architecture student made me think there was more significance to this than the film let on. So I did some digging.

Gaudi made his name designing homes for Spain’s wealthy families, but before he was tragically hit by a bus and killed, he started to create churches. Gaudi went from making ostentatious estates and shrinking down and exploring the minute simple details of his craft. He didn’t want to make churches that bragged about their wealth. The architect had never been overtly religious, but in the last few years of his life, Gaudi spent a lot of his time pouring through the Bible and analyzing it. He was on his way to church when the trolley struck him in 1926. No one even recognized him on the street. For them, this was just a poor old man who had been killed in an accident. Taxi drivers wouldn’t even carry his body to the hospitals when other pedestrians asked them to; he looked like a dirty old beggar. He was finally taken to the hospital of the Holy Cross, where he had said he would like to pass from this life, lay in a spare room for three days, and finally died. 

Gaudi’s funeral procession was one of the largest in the history of Spain for a non-monarch. Some onlookers weren’t sure who it was for and assumed it must have been for a champion bullfighter. When Locke dies, his hotel is near a bullring, and we can hear the trumpets playing. Gaudi was searching for meaning near the end of his life, and he confided in friends and colleagues that life had meaning when a person involved themselves in something, to step away from being an observer, and to take action, even if you don’t know what will happen next. When Locke and the girl first meet, he asks her if she thinks that Gaudi was a crazy person; she responds by flipping the question: “What do you think?” Locke’s response is, “No, he wasn’t.”

In 1972, Antonioni was commissioned to film a documentary in communist China for Italian television, Chung Kuo Cina. The result of this shoot was animosity between the director and the Chinese government over the purpose & intent of the picture. Antonioni came to shoot an objective look at communist China a handful of years out from the Cultural Revolution. The Chinese government saw this as a film to present their concept of the New Chinese Man to the world. Antonioni claimed he wanted to be an objective observer, and this statement seemed to evoke fury in the Chinese. They tried to block the film from being shown in various European countries. Being an “objective observer” sounds neutral, something the West prides itself on being the epitome of a journalist. So why did the Chinese get so mad at this concept?

Antonioni became infuriated in his own right. When asked in interviews later about this incident, he revealed a powerfully emotional side of himself. He stated in one such interview, “I’ve been accused of being a fascist! Of having fought with the fascist troops! I want the Chinese to know this: I was condemned to death during the war as a member of the Resistance. I was on the other side! I must say these things, once and for all, because it can’t go on that these people go around insulting me this way.” Three years later, when The Passenger was released, something seemed to have slightly shifted. Antonioni would say the film was about “the myth of objectivity.” He would elaborate by saying that to claim objectivity would be to choose to be dead to life, a non-participant. He spent a lot of time thinking about what the Chinese told him and reflecting on his beliefs. 

Chad is the sun to which the planets of the film’s characters & themes orbit. Chad was a former French protectorate (fancy name for a colony) that gained independence in 1960. It’s a larger and more diverse country than most Westerners likely realized. Its size is approximately that of France, Spain, and Italy, combined with half the population declaring Islam as their religion. Some Christians are sprinkled there, but the other half are mostly still devoted to ancient African religions. The president of Chad, François Tombalbaye, had set up a dictatorship when he took power in 1960. By 1975, the year of The Passenger’s release, he was murdered by his military during a coup. Before this, a robust communist opposition to his regime built up in the country, and the French returned to help fight the guerillas, i.e., “tamp down communism,” as the West loves to do.

Tombalbaye became frustrated with the lack of support from France, constantly pushing the communists back just enough but then watching them build back up. In this way, France could keep a foothold in Chad, and the president knew this. So he ordered all French troops to leave and declared all Chadian citizens to drop their French-based names and adopt native African ones. Liberal French journalists remained in the country, watched Tombalbaye become crueler, and started calling for their nation’s troops to return. 

Antonioni does not present the situation in Chad objectively. He uses his camera to show one group as bad and the other as good. The dictatorship ruling over Chad is bad, and the rebels, arms dealers, and associates are good. Robertson, the man whom Locke assumes the identity of, is a good person. He is a revolutionary, making a profit off the sale of weapons, but he is also dedicated to the cause. Robertson is not ripping these soldiers off; he is doing what he can to provide them with the tools needed to oust Tombalbaye. Locke’s questions throughout the film, in his capacity as a journalist as meant to be stupid, obtuse, and uninformed. He is a Westerner out of his depth trying to apply his way of thinking to a situation outside of that. 

Films have often helped me in building my vocabulary outside of them. This is most interesting when you discover a new meaning to a word you thought you already knew. For example, Todd Field’s In the Bedroom revealed that lobster cages have a rear compartment that can hold only two lobsters. Any more, and they would start killing each other. So that space is called “the bedroom.” So too, does “passenger” another meaning that further opens up this film and our understanding of it.

“Passenger” in its original meaning was not about a person alongside the driver of a vehicle. It was used to refer to someone on a journey, a wayfaring passerby. This film is deeply concerned with death, so in this way, Locke is the passenger. He is going to die at some point. How he chooses to mark that journey is up to him. When we meet him, he is a passive person; Locke doesn’t believe in the causes he documents; he says he is just there to witness them. By the end of the film, Locke has become intertwined in the revolution without really understanding it beyond that it is actual life. This is why he abandons who he was before because now he sees a chance to live. 

I have scratched the surface of unpacking this movie, if you can believe it. The Passenger is one of the densest, novel-like films I have ever seen. It is an exploration of making yourself a part of something larger, diving in like Gaudi advised so that you can say you have lived. You see, there is one more meaning of “passenger” I didn’t share above that I believe unlocks what this movie is saying. In British boating slang, the word “passenger” refers to someone in the rowing crew who cannot pull his own weight. South African farmers use the term to refer to a herd animal who passively follows and doesn’t protect or lead the group. The Italian title for the film is Profession: Reporter. I’m someone who believes strongly in communist ideology (I’m still learning about the various shades & tones of each breakout movement) and The Passenger said many things I needed to hear.

I will leave us here with the work of Michelangelo Antonioni. I didn’t know much about him when I started this series, and now, in the end, I can say he is one of my favorite filmmakers of all time. I can completely understand if a person doesn’t like his movies. The first time I saw L’avventura in my twenties, I simply didn’t get it. These aren’t simple movies, they demand a lot from the audience, and rightfully so, we can do the work. But, when you wrestle with these pictures, you unlock new ways of thinking, see how Antonioni took in the world through his camera, and life takes on new colors. His work is sentimental but not maudlin; it’s bleak but not hopeless. Through decades and even in death, his films talk to us about how we live and who we love and implore us to live with purpose. If we don’t, we’re simply the walking dead.

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