Director: Michelangelo Antonioni
By Marilyn Ferdinand
It’s not often that I think the English translation of a title is better than the original, but in the case of Antonioni’s haunting search for identity and meaning, The Passenger is clearly the better title. If this film were really only about the objectivity of a reporter, it would not have grown larger in my memory instead of receding like most films tend to do. In fact, this film largely eschews objectivity and reporting, allowing the audience unusual freedom to create an experience from the raw materials and choices made by Antonioni, his actors, and the rest of the crew.
Who is the passenger? He is David Locke (Jack Nicholson), a British reporter raised in America who is working in an unnamed African nation. We learn from flashbacks and viewing interview footage later in the film that he has already spoken with the dictator of the country. But when we first meet Locke at the beginning of the film, he is moving from one contact to another, exchanging cigarettes for information on where he can find the leaders of a rebellion against the current government. This daisy chain of contacts is the first ride on which Locke will be taken, one that results in another—the proverbial “being taken for a ride.” After a long trek through desert sands, his guide hides him from the group of soldiers, riding by on camels, he specifically came to see. Angered, Locke walks back to his Land Rover and promptly drives it into a sand drift. His frustration bubbles over, and Locke bashes the sides of his vehicle with a shovel he started to use to dig himself out. In the next scene, it is apparent that Locke has walked back to the village and motel at which he is staying.
Asking for water and informing a hotel employee that there is no soap for his shower, Locke wanders to the room of another guest, Robertson (Charles Mulvehille). He finds Robertson sprawled on his bed, which makes Locke chuckle at his langorousness. Then he notices that Robertson is not moving. He’s dead. Locke flashes back to the conversation they had during a bored evening at the motel. Locke reveals his profession and why he is in the country. Robertson says only that he is a businessman, one without family or friends. “What business could you possibly do out here?” asks an incredulous Locke. “I provide people with things they need. They understand this perfectly.” Robertson comments on how beautiful the landscape at dusk looks. Locke dismisses the observation: “I prefer men to landscapes.”
We soon find out that the memories of Robertson are induced by a tape recording of the conversation Locke made surreptitiously. This action is the first hint of an enigma at the center of Locke’s being, since he obviously had no reason to assume that anything Robertson said would be salient to his reporting. Locke’s professional training in reflexive suspiciousness and mediated encounters seem to filter into even personal encounters. In another flashback scene later in the film, we will hear Locke’s now ex-wife Rachel (Jenny Runacre) accuse him of talking but not really engaging. This assessment probably was true up until the moment Locke hatches a plot. He decides to steal Robertson’s identity and pass the dead man off as himself. Although Nicholson and Mulvehille bear some resemblance to each other, I grinned thinking that the old saying “they all look alike” certainly would apply for the Africans in this film charged with contacting the authorities about the dead man.
The recording gives Locke valuable information about Robertson’s life and outlook. His passport, clothes, plane ticket to Munich, and appointment book give Locke a new direction. At first, the aimlessness and freedom this action brings seems exhilarating. As Robertson, Locke rents a car from Avis and can’t tell the agent where he plans to go or for how long. He chooses Yugoslavia purely at random. He looks in Robertson’s appointment book and sees a locker number and a location. He goes there and opens the locker, from which he retrieves an soft attaché case that contains some papers that have images of guns on them. He drives away and stops impulsively at a small church where a wedding is underway. There he remembers some details of his own fraught marriage. He hides while the wedding party exits the church in a flurry of flower petals. The petals grind under his feet rather poignantly as he moves toward the altar.
Two men, one black African and one German, have followed him to the church. We saw them before at the terminal where Locke retrieved the papers. They ask him if something went wrong, why he hadn’t approached them. Improvising, he says there was a problem. He understands they want to see the papers. The African remarks with approval that he has nearly everything they asked for, save for anti-aircraft weapons. Locke, now unequivocally aware that Robertson was a gun runner, apologizes and hopes the lack of the anti-aircraft fire power is not too much of an inconvenience. The pair gives Locke a large sum of money as down-payment for the weapons. “I’ve heard about you, Mr. Robertson,” says the African. “You’re not like the others. You believe in our cause.” Locke looks more than nonplussed by this statement of feeling. He agrees to meet them again in Barcelona to finalize the transaction.
Robertson had mentioned that he wanted to go back to England, that he hadn’t been there in three years. A mix perhaps of Robertson’s and Locke’s wishes push Locke to head to London and let himself into the house he used to share with Rachel. He goes to their bedroom, reads a note on the door jamb, and moves through the room. A POV shot of him coming toward the bedroom door and exiting allows Antonioni to fix his camera on the contents of the note, a message of love from a new man in Rachel’s life.
Antonioni chooses to reveal more about Locke through Rachel. Learning of David’s death, she goes to the television studio where he used to work and views videotaped interviews he conducted, some, like the interview with the African dictator, for which she traveled with him. Her memories of this particular interview are not pleasant—she castigates him for asking questions of people he knows will lie to him. “It’s part of the game,” he answers in a weary acceptance of his role in the propaganda machine. Rachel, caring more for David now that he is dead, wants to find the man who discovered the body—Robertson. David’s producer Martin (Ian Hendry) agrees to help her find him.
This fascinating set-up creates a psychologically interesting dilemma—Locke as Robertson is running away from himself into a fantasy identity. One part of the conversation between Robertson and Locke comes significantly to mind. Locke says, “We translate every situation, every experience into the same old codes. We just condition ourselves,” to which Robertson retorts predictably, but truthfully, “We are creatures of habit.” In fact, however, Locke is truly starting to transform into Robertson.
By this time, David has gone to Barcelona, following Robertson’s appointments for lack of something else to do. Inside one of Antonio Gaudi’s magnificent buildings, he encounters The Girl (Maria Schneider), an architecture student from France. She will remain with him for the rest of the film, urging him to meet Robertson’s appointments because Robertson believed in something. Her dogged loyalty leads Locke to say more than once, “Why the fuck are you with me?” She never gives him an answer. She doesn’t have a name. He saw her in Munich before he actually met her in Barcelona. She appears to be symbolic or an agent of his destiny, his better self.
When David learns that Rachel and Martin are on his trail, not knowing initially that they are really looking for Robertson (who, paradoxically, David is becoming), he goes on the run with The Girl. In a scene that somewhat parallels his sand-bound truck scene, the oil pan of their car springs a leak far from a repair shop. David gives The Girl some money to catch a bus and ferry out of Spain. He says he will meet her after he finishes Robertson’s final appointment. Naturally, The Girl shows up at the hotel where Robertson/Locke finally become one. Only The Girl, not Rachel, will recognize David at the end of the film.
Antonioni’s film has a timeless quality, with dusty, open streets, desert landscapes, the landscape-inspired buildings of Gaudi, and ancient villages providing an archetypal setting for Locke’s encounter with his Other. The passive destruction of the objective reporter who plays the game has its counterpoint in the active destruction of the gun runner who believes in a cause. Without this belief, of course, there would have been no need for Locke to trade in his identity; there would have been no escape from his ennui, only a new way to express it.
Antonioni’s long takes similarly slow down the observer. Locke is taken into the desert by a young African, who sees a camel far in the distance and bolts from Locke’s side. Like Locke, the audience is forced to watch the slow, steady approach of the camel and its passenger, wondering if this is what he has been waiting for, wondering if the encounter will be peaceful or violent. In fact, we only wonder these things because of the actions of the young African, who seems to invest the scene with a meaning we never discover.
The remarkable long take through the barred window of the room in which Robertson/Locke rests near the end of the film is the textbook example of the possibilities of the long take. Capturing the ordinary rhythms and scenes of life in the village brings the audience inside the frame to perform an action Robertson/Locke repeatedly asks of The Girl: “What do you see?” But Antonioni does more. Rather than put the audience in the reporter’s seat, he uses The Girl to inject meaning into the scene. Asked to leave by Robertson/Locke, The Girl wanders around the square. A couple of vehicles move in and out of the frame; then a vehicle carrying some men who have been looking for Robertson moves into view. What happens throughout this scene is completely conveyed, but only through knowing the meaning of what we are seeing. Ultimately, this is the lesson for which Locke—and we—have taken this ride.