Before I left for the Germany I was at the cinema — I went to see Antonioni’s The Passenger (the English title is much better than the Italian or French one, if you ask me). The film, apparently, has not been in cinemas for a decade or so, and was re-released last year. It was on at one of my favourite cinemas, Le Champo, so I went along. For the very last projection. The one at 21.45, at the dead end of the day. And just like the other films of his that I’d seen, I feel a need to record here what I have seen.
The film is in English, and in colour. Mr. Jack Nicholson plays a reporter travelling through the remote wastes of Africa in search of important people, leaders of the resistance. That one great interview which could explain everything. But he finds nothing. His targets are elusive, they disappear. The sands shift and he is lost thousands of miles from where he should be. Antonioni, of course, pulls the camera back, we see the dunes and desert wastes, and hear the harsh breath of wind across the sands, see Nicholson’s desparation in the midst of this void.
Somehow — we are never sure how — he find his way back to his hotel, a small village, a few stone walls lost in the sand. He calls on his neighbour, a man he’d spoken to for a few minutes and finds — the man is dead. And he notices something, looking at his passport — he resembles the dead man, just a little. Enough to pass for him in this land far from white man. Surely this man’s life is simpler than his? He decides that he is the dead man, that the dead man is him. He lifts the dead man’s appointment book and sees the journeys he will have to make.
This idea is the core of Antonioni’s film. Does it really matter who you are, actually? From very early in the film it becomes clear that the answer is no, really it does not. Nicholson’s new identity is just as marked as his old one. That the film can only have one possible ending is very clear.
Every frame of the film is as carefully framed as a painting. Nicholson crosses ocean waters in a cable car, is suspended alone above the blue waters, unsupported. The film proceeds at slow, glacial pace but this does not matter as there is so much to look at, the buildings and people, the long shots full of space and distance. Nicholson arrives at each destination marked in the appointment book to find one empty square after another. No-one arrives. He waits for Godot. But others know who he is now. At the end, for the last frames of the film, a long unbroken shot carefully takes in many details over the course of almost ten minutes. It is a perfectly choreographed termination to Mr. Nicholson’s doomed trajectory. A great film, as great as any of the other Antonionis I have seen.