16 of 19 people found the following review helpful
A Truly Flawed Masterpiece,
This review is from: The Passenger [DVD]  (DVD)
'The Passenger'is the very essence of quiet, profound filmaking. Elliptical, incrediby ambiguous and with a noirish storyline that discards the importance of plot for the existential philosophies that such a story can open up to. Often I have wondered why such a film has been so badly neglected and forgotten (it wasn't avaliable in the UK on either VHS or DVD formats).
The story is refreshingly simple, leaving Antonioni to practically do whatever he wants with it artistically without once being restricted. Nicholson plays David Locke, a successful journalist following the story of a group of rebels in a remote North African area. Through the opening sequences we are presented with a sense of disorientation, dissatisfaction and confusion in the character (not once through conversation or voiceover but through his actions, his facial expressions, mannerisms and the importance of the vast landscapes caught through each camera shot). In the hotel room next to his he finds a man with a vague resemblance to himself dead. He assumes the man's identity and through information in the man's diary decides to pretend to be him, only later discovering the man is a gun runner dealing with some ruthless criminals. On the run from the British Embassy and the gun runners Nicholson finds himself in Spain where he meets Maria Schneider's character, an anonymous tourist who he decides can help him hide from his pursuers.
The story is fantastic, with definite space for existential musings, philosophy and a number of themes relating to identity, disatisfaction and destiny. However, it is how Antonioni is attempting to impart these messages where the film ultimately fails. The first of the two fatal flaws of 'The Passenger' is that it is trying to be too intelligent. The inclusion of London settings with Locke's wife and a whole host of posh nit-wits making a documentary on his life add nothing whatsoever to the plot and really only result in too many tedious and annoying scenes that completely ruin the mood of the film and the attachment we should be making to the protagonist. Flashbacks of Nicholson interviewing Witch doctors and rebel leaders while his wife is mincing around in the background obviously impart the estrangement between them but alienate the viewer from the story and the essence of alienation the film is ultimately attempting to impart.
Many believe Antonioni is discarding the need for plot in this film, but ultimately I believe that the mechanics of the plot he has annoyingly added have ruined what the film may have been: An absolute masterpiece. The British perspective in the film has ruined it and taken away the existential tone and the edge that extended concentration on Nicholson's character may have brought to the film.
The second flaw in the film is Nicholson's performance, but this is not actually his fault. The nitty-gritty flashbacks, the completely pretentious inclusion of footage of innocent civilians being shot etc. and the occasionally completely tedious camerawork do not give him space to establish his character. As a true devotee of Nicholson's earlier film 'Five Easy Pieces' (his finest performance in a true existentialist masterpiece), i noticed that he just didn't bring the same dimension to David Locke as he did to Robert Dupea- and yet both men are running away from something. 'Five Easy Pieces' had brooding long camera shots, scenes with little or no dialogue, and very little plot significance, but it completely draws you in and makes you feel the character's pain and tribulation. 'The Passenger' does not do this. Too many scenes slip by without any edge or emapthy, too many scenes have Maria Schneider speaking artsy drivel that is uninspired. Nicholson could really have made the film his own, but the fact is Antonioni has not granted him the privilege of simply acting. There are a few bursts of brilliant, underplayed performance towards the beginning of the film and the end (the Yugoslavian Chapel scene must also be applauded), but otherwise he wanders around stifled and asleep.
Finally, 'The Passeneger', although flawed, contains moments of incredible beauty, of technically superb direction, and it leaves you asking a huge number of questions once it has finished. The film's end left me breathless, disorientated and ever so slightly melancholy. The seven minute zoom shot with Nicholson on the bed and all of the myths that surround it (it is so completely ambiguous in plot and in message, left entirely to the viewer to decide what has happened)leave you completely in awe. Few films have ever left it to the sub-conscience and the subliminal to lead you towards the conclusion. Intelligent, ethereal, poignant and impossible. Classic.