Throughout the 70s and 80s, several Hollywood stars collaborated on projects with some of cinema’s biggest auteurs. Most notably, the likes of Robert De Niro – who, fresh off an Oscar win for Raging Bull, decided to fly out to Rome and work with Sergio Leone (who at that point hadn’t directed a movie in 13 years!) on what would be his last picture, Once Upon a Time in America – Donald Sutherland with his unpredictable turn in Fellini’s Casanova, and Oscar-nominated Elliot Gould taking center-stage in Ingmar Bergman’s The Touch showed that Hollywood was just not enough for those that dared to be personal and creative in their work. Hollywood could only go as far in terms of artistic vision.
One of the most accomplished pairings proved to be The Passenger, where the paths of iconoclast Michelangelo Antonioni and Hollywood superstar Jack Nicholson met, creating a perfect tandem of beliefs and ideas about the central question in Antonioni’s body of work: what does it mean to have an identity?
As part of a three-movie deal with MGM Studios that saw Antonioni direct Blowup (1966) – a critical and commercial success – Zabriskie Point (1970) – a critical and commercial failure – The Passenger was the nail in the coffin for Antonioni’s career in America. The movie was shelved following its initial release and only re-released decades later when Jack Nicholson got his hands on the movie’s rights. The Hollywood actor considered The Passenger the highlight of his career; an intimate piece of work that had been taken away from audiences and kept in the dark like a precious painting in times of war.
If there is a parable for how Hollywood operates it can be found in The Passenger, as the studio was desperate to turn things around and use Jack Nicholson’s name and star power to save this picture from sinking. What the studio failed to predict was that Antonioni would always, no matter what, go out of his way and avoid the clichés and tropes of typical studio movies. Moreover, the studio failed to predict that Jack Nicholson, the man who had just finished making Chinatown and One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (and a longtime studio-system actor) would buy into Antonioni’s cinematic ideology and embrace the Italian’s way of making pictures. For Nicholson, The Passenger was the opportunity to get away from the glamour, noise and billboards of Sunset Boulevard. It was his shot at making something pure, something that did not taste of salted popcorn and soft drinks.
In The Passenger, the story revolves around a war correspondent who, for some reason, cannot seem to find the war he’s looking for in Northern Africa. He has a sudden change of heart, and upon discovering the dead body of a man he had just met in a remote hotel, he decides to assume the dead man’s identity. Like a passenger, he hops on a ride, not knowing where this ride will take him.
This seemingly simple premise could have turned the movie into a run-off-the-mill thriller as Nicholson’s new identity corresponds to that of an arms dealer pursued by several enemy factions. Instead, Antonioni opts for something much deeper and closer in style to his ”alienation trilogy” of the 60s (L’Avventura, La Notte, L’Eclisse).
For Antonioni, the crux of the story is Nicholson’s crisis of identity and the decision to leave behind an entire life and replace it with a new one. How can a man simply wipe the slate clean, forget the people he’s met, the work he’s done? How can he pretend to walk in another man’s shoes without realizing the complexities that went into that man’s life?
The process of assuming the dead man’s identity is very basic in practical terms: Nicholson simply takes the photo of his passport and attaches it onto the dead man’s document. It is as simple as that, thinks our protagonist. But the truth is that one cannot possibly wish for another man’s life without taking on the other man’s burdens. Antonioni sets out to explore this dilemma.
What we find out is that Nicholson’s character is a man who has probably seen too much, but it’s also possible that he’s never fully understood the things he’s seen. As a war correspondent he’s ventured to far-away places and put his life at risk in order to interview war chiefs, presidents, generals, rebels and soldiers. The interviews he’s carried out were all meant to bring to light a community’s struggle and fight for ideals. But we soon find out that the reporter had by this point learned to distance himself too convincingly from the events he witnessed. He was a passenger there, too. He just didn’t know it. This is most evident in a scene where a man who Nicholson is interviewing, turns the camera around to face him and asks to repeat the same questions but with the camera rolling in Nicholson’s direction. Only by not hiding behind the camera will he be able to fully absorb the realities of the world he’s so busy documenting.
In a way, this scene effectively predicts today’s obsession of documenting everything around us without ever taking the time to live through these moments; these moments that we’re so determined to capture, record and store.
The movie continues to highlight Nicholson’s constant illusion of being someone else. At the start it’s an adventure as he meets the people the dead man was supposed to meet, goes to places the dead man was supposed to go to, and is free of whatever kept driving him into the ground in his previous life.
Soon he realizes that life at its core holds something we cannot get rid of: things like habits, codes of conduct, responsibility are omnipresent and will eventually find a way into anybody’s life.
At one point he says, “I’ve run out of everything; my wife — the house — an adopted child — a successful job — everything except a few bad habits I could not get rid of.”
The inevitable realization that we’re all somehow connected by the same problems, the same desires and obsessions in Antonioni’s world is a terrifying realization of doom. After all, Nicholson’s character wanted to escape. And yet, there is no escape for him. He cannot live a life without being part of the world.
The woman he meets in Barcelona, played by a wonderfully soulful Maria Schneider, tries to comfort him and play along like a partner in crime. Their conversations, however, constantly revolve around the inevitability of life. She is also, in a way, trying to escape, but her escape seems to be of temporary nature. She is young, bright and has the whole future ahead of her.
The two travel together across deserted parts of Spanish Almeria. At a certain point in their journey, she asks him a simple question: ”What are you running away from?” to which he replies, “Turn the other way so that your back faces the front seat.” As she does so in his open convertible, we are presented with her view of an endless row of trees and the road they’re leaving behind. It is at this point that we realize, there is no salvation for Nicholson’s character. Just the illusion of an escape.
After making the film, Nicholson recalled that Antonioni saw his actors as nothing more than ”moving space.” This is most evident in Nicholson’s haunting performance. In The Passenger he’s at his most vulnerable as he plays a man who wants to blend in at all costs; a man who wants to be accepted and left alone. In other words, we watch one of the most bombastic, A-list dramatic actors turn in a performance that is both restrained and powerfully evocative.
Paired with Antonioni’s eye for architecture and landscapes, Jack’s performance fills the frame not with his usual, larger-than-life personality, but with a ghost-like desire. A desire to start from scratch. To be part of something.
The end result is essentially a quiet meditation on what it means to live a life. And despite featuring in large part themes of alienation and loneliness, I see The Passenger as a comforting film, where Nicholson’s character and Maria Schneider’s try to make sense of the world by supporting each other. It may be a lost fight, but the journey is ultimately fulfilling.
What the reporter forgets, is that a passenger must eventually know when to get off.