‘The Passenger’: Michelangelo Antonioni’s somber study of isolation and disenchantment

 

the-passengerNo one films boredom and isolation like Michelangelo Antonioni does. In fact, I don’t think I can name any other director who can make boredom look so oddly appealing, except, maybe Nuri Bilge Ceylan. I always say that if an Antonioni film has managed to bore you to death, then he got what he wished for. The Italian filmmaker has maintained an endless fascination with characters who feel lost and constantly grapple with loneliness, isolation, and boredom throughout his career and has quite remarkably succeeded in conveying  their state of mind to his audiences.

However, he was not always successful and some of his films are excruciatingly dull and can be a chore to sit through. But despite that, I’ve never considered them “bad” films. Each one of his films has something interesting to say. I haven’t covered all his films but among the ones I’ve seen so far, I found The Passenger to be the most appealing and it’s my personal favorite. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s the presence of the 70s’ Jack Nicholson which makes the film much more palatable; maybe it’s because it explores some of my favorite themes – identity, isolation, disenchantment, the inevitability of fate – or maybe it’s because of the overall nature of the film. Or it could be all of the above.

I wouldn’t want to attempt an in-depth analysis as there could be so much in the film that may escape one on first or second viewing. It’s definitely not a film for everyone and is not an easy one to sit through. But it’s impossible to deny that there is something really fascinating about the whole thing. We can see what it’s about – an extremely frustrated, restless and disenchanted man who wants to get out of his “old” life and start a completely new one. This ‘man’ is David Locke, a reporter who is currently working on an assignment – a documentary on warring guerrillas – out in some remote and empty-looking desert somewhere in Africa. When his contact fails to take him to wherever he wants to go, he is annoyed. And to make matters worse, his jeep breaks down in the middle of nowhere.

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This is not the kind of life he wants to live right now. When he finally gets back to his hotel room, he finds out the man occupying the room next to his, a man named Robertson, has died of a heart attack. Locke immediately sees an opportunity in this. He decides to switch his identity for Robertson’s. This man is revealed to be a gunrunner and for some odd reason, Locke thinks he has finally found the adventurous and exciting life that he is really seeking. We learn along the way that he has a wife back home who is looking for him. Meanwhile, Locke a mysterious Frenchwoman (played by Maria Schneider). She is referred to in the credits as “The Girl”. Locke is running from something and the girl is curious about his odd behavior. We are not clear about what her role in his life is either.

It becomes slowly apparent that Locke’s new life may turn out to be much worse than he had expected. There is a similarity here with another Antonioni film, L’avventura. In that, a woman mysteriously disappears and her friend and lover have to deal with the rest of, well, life. Here, a character decides to make himself disappear and the whole film takes place from the perspective of the missing character. The characters in Antonioni’s films are all looking for something and they don’t seem to be quite sure of what exactly is it that they want. They wander about like aimless specters. The same seems to be the case with Locke. The film is a deliberately paced study of existential crisis under the guise of a thriller and will require a tremendous amount of patience, depending on the person. The ambiguous 7-min final shot is fascinating and has been discussed by many film scholars.

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