Tuesday 1 January 2019

From the archive: "The Passenger"

1975's The Passenger remains one of Antonioni's most mysterious (perhaps because least screened) enigmas, with Jack Nicholson as the TV reporter who - out of a desire for either greater detachment or more excitement - elects to swap identities with a dead businessman he encounters while visiting Africa. All evidence would suggest excitement's what he's after (the businessman's business involves running guns to rebels), although as an Antonioni movie, the use of the word has to be qualified somewhat: what we watch often resembles a series of rented rooms in search of a narrative to connect them. Puzzle a little harder, and a few clues begin to materialise. The tale of a man who heads East and loses himself, it makes sense this should have been produced around the same period as Apocalypse Now - on some level, it has to be about American foreign policy, or Americans abroad - although one also suspects the director had something more specific yet in his sights: the moral complacency of those bourgeois Westerners who can afford to hole up in swanky Kensington pads and clown about Barcelona in weirdsville Gaudi funhouses. These days, the film begins to look like one of those globetrotting espionage thrillers so in vogue at the start of the 1970s, slowed down to accommodate Antonioni's fascination with both the vastness, and the smallest, of things. It stands out as a rare occasion when a director got the better of Nicholson, denying him his established tics, and - for better and worse - refusing to let the actor's personality become the organising principle of the film.

(June 2006)

The Passenger returns to selected cinemas from Friday.

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