The Passenger: Jack Nicholson and Michelangelo Antonioni have an identity crisis

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?

Michelangelo Antonioni and Jack Nicholson on set of The Passenger.

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.

The moment Nicholson’s reporter gives up. He wants out.

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.

Nicholson assumes the identity of an arms dealer.

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.”

Maria Schneider’s character becomes his companion for the journey.

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.

She is also running away from something. Anything.

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.

He wants to be accepted and left alone.


New Wave

A quick update from my summer holiday. Cinema is a gift. Cinema can expand borders of any kind and can easily destroy any obstacles on the way. It makes you think and it challenges the hell out of you. It can do that. You just have to look in the right places. I’ve began my Jean-Luc Godard watch. During these couple of weeks I plan to revisit all of his works. For now, I leave you with a few notes.

  1. Breathless (1960)  – Godard’s debut is like the title suggests, a breathtaking experience. It is a film, that like so many other works from the French author, explores the relationship between two human beings who are not suited for one another. They love each other and at the same time they feel disgusted by the other’s presence. The camera creeps in whenever there is a real connection between the two lovers (played by the beautiful Jean Seberg and the young, dynamic Jean-Paul Belmondo) and fades out once the connection is cut in half. The two lovers, immersed in the loveless city of Paris, are the typical example of New Wave protagonists: insecure, scared and ambitious. They have dreams, but Godard doesn’t let them fly for too long.

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    Lovers. Their destiny is unknown.
  2. Vivre sa vie (1962) – Godard searches for answers in the world of prostitution. We follow a young woman who wants to become an actress despite being poor and alone. It is presented in twelve episodic tales that portray the life of a Parisian woman (the iconic Anna Karina)  and her slow descent into prostitution. This film studies spaces. Godard begins to shape his style that will later on consist of one question: what is real? The camera is always there to limit our view. We want answers but we have to work in order to get them. We have to get dirty, just like the young woman.

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    Distant dreams.
  3. Contempt (1963) – probably my favorite Godard and his most hated one by the public. It is his most mature work, and one that feels strongly inspired by the works of Antonioni, another master at telling stories that deal with everything and nothing at the same time. For Godard relationships are just a mere excuse to be with someone else. Lovers exist because the world says so. Not because we want to. Contempt is a story of two people who learn to hate each other. It is also a film dedicated to cinema. It is a film dedicated to music and culture. Brigitte Bardot, the beautiful star of the 60s, plays the wife of a playwright. The two drift apart from each other and their relationship becomes a Greek tragedy. Godard would go on and continue the use of his long shots, filmed in Technicolor, in order to highlight the hopelessness we are born into. For Godard, everything is about cinema. Love can wait.

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    The look of love/hatred.

To Be a Perro

Cruelty. Today’s subject matter will be cruelty portrayed in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s debut — Amores Perros. For some this movie can be tough as hell. Who doesn’t cringe at scenes that consist of bloody dog fighting? Who doesn’t cringe expecting the worst after the movie’s opening title: Life’s a Bitch?  No dogs were harmed in the making of this picture is the first disclaimer that appears on screen. Deal with that. Iñárritu, before entering the world of Hollywood and becoming one of the only three directors to win back-to-back Oscars for best directing, did at first make his small debut in Mexico. Small but effective, and considered to be one of the best directing debuts in the history of cinema and one of the best foreign language movies ever made. Ladies and gentlemen, this movie opened up doors that no one dared to open. To blend cruelty with love and despair? Art. Amores Perros has a heart and a razor sharp machete.

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The punisher and the punished.

Mexico City. A place where anything can happen. A place where you either wear a gun or make money off your dog’s death. A place where dreams are kept in a cage and all you can do is ceiling gazing. The lives of three people will collide after a horrendous car accident. There is blood involved. But no matter how deep we delve into the depths of physical pain and loneliness, Iñárritu will always observe the omnipresence of love. The cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto (Biutiful, The Wolf of Wall Street), enhances the light, the grain of the picture, the bright colors that highlight the life on the filthy streets. The music goes from heavy Mexican rap to the delicate chord strumming songs composed by the great Gustavo Santaolalla (Brokeback Mountain, Babel) because that’s the essence of life: it is a bitch that can either bite or caress. You don’t get to choose. The characters sure don’t. Octavio, El Chivo and Valeria sure don’t. They know cruelty more than anyone.

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Octavio and his love. A love worth fighting for.

Octavio, played by the up and coming Gael Garcia Bernal (Y Tu Mamá También, Motorcycle Diaries) is a young man who wants to get out of this hell hole. His older brother is a punk and a robber, and Octavio is in love with the brother’s wife, Susana. It is only a matter of time before Octavio finds out how to make money for his escape as quick as he can: dog fights. Life forces this young man to rely on the pain of his pet in order to get away from all this evil around him. He’ll take Susana and the baby with him. Plain and simple. Or maybe not. You see, Octavio’s young man’s dreams are immediately crushed by the ruthless force of life. Octavio embodies innocence, immaturity, inexperience. These are all qualities that make life difficult, that make of life an almost impossible task. Octavio will be forced to crawl into the dark world of drug dealers, gangsters and dog fighters. As the film progresses and Octavio’s story begins to go down along with all the bloody events, Iñárritu slowly unravels the boy’s helplessness. The camera starts to feel detached from the young man. It is not a comforting presence anymore. We feel dirty, involved, touched by Octavio’s struggles.

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Ceiling gazing.

Valeria, on the other hand, is a super model who gets involved with a married man. The two start living together and everything seems possible. Everything seems achievable. Love gives life a shape and form, doesn’t it? Valeria embodies beauty and success. Her whole career has consisted of posing in front of a camera and walking down the stage and accepting beauty awards. That’s all there is to her. But life’s cruel actions will mess this up. Valeria will be victim of the terrible car accident. Valeria won’t be the woman she once was. Her dog, Richie, will jump into a hole in the floor in order to find a lost toy, but he won’t come back. Richie will whimper and scratch against the wooden ceiling that is the floor. Daniel, Valeria’s boyfriend, will go crazy trying to free the dog and get him out to make his girlfriend happy. Richie is a symbol of humanity. Iñárritu won’t let him out until Daniel and Valeria have gone through the painful part of their relationship. It’s a test. And humanity doesn’t give up. It’s always there. Fighting off rats and surviving in the dark. It’s only a matter of time until humanity crawls out, breathing, alive.

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The model – Valeria.

And then there is El Chivo, one of the most impressive characters ever put on screen, played to perfection by Emilio Echevarria. This is a man who has seen it all. He embodies the fading past, the painful weight of memory. El Chivo is a man of experience, once a guerilla fighter, now a paid assassin. He lives the live of a homeless man, surrounded by dogs, his only friends. Whatever happened to him in the past it’s for you to discover. He is father time and his presence feels almost holy and spiritual in some twisted way. He will take care of a dying dog and help the poor beast recover. He will square off and try to make peace between two business men, brothers, at war with each other. He is a force that is mostly felt rather than seen. When he walks down the street he is invisible to the people passing by. And yet, his actions count. Not only to strangers but his long lost family as well. He can take any physical shape or form. He can sport a Marxist beard or walk clean shaven dressed in a smart suit, but he will always be felt. He will always have a say. He will confront life and at the same time he will be life’s servant. That is all i can say about El Chivo. The rest is yours.

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Trying to fix the past is not easy.

Amores Perros is certainly similar to the later Brazilian film City of God. Both are ruthless depictions of life on the street. However, City of God, as brilliant as it is, works much better as a documentary. It serves cold facts and chews on a plot that has not much to offer in terms of analyzing the bigger picture. It is as bloody as Amores Perros but it does not work as well as the latter does. Iñárritu paints with blood and emotions. For him life is a bitch because we are not powerful enough. We will never be. We want to be but that is highly unlikely to happen. The three intersecting stories of Octavio, Valeria and El Chivo offer the viewer the essence of life. Love, anger, revenge and the bitter taste of past mistakes make of life a cruel bitch. A bitch that will always prevail. Only El Chivo will walk this earth forever.

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The omnipresent guardian.

The Creator’s Hands

Today’s topic: the world of The Revenant. When I think about it, I come to the conclusion that cinema is divided into two categories: movies and films. Movies can be manipulated, changed, edited, cut and re-shot. Films, on the other hand, are made out of stone; once they’re done, they’re done, they’re rock solid and they stay forever. Nothing can change them, nothing can touch them. They are confessions, tales of truth, parables that will guide future generations in hopefully the right direction. The Revenant is a film. You look at it and you are fully aware that you’re not reading a comic book, you’re not playing a video game, you are watching a film. Why is that? What makes it so colossal and epic? Its immense, cruel, beautiful world.

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Looking for answers.

Man vs Nature has been the topic of many directors’ filmographies such as Werner Herzog’s (Fitzcarraldo, Aguirre the Wrath of God), Andrei Tarkovsky’s (Andrei Rublev), and Akira Kurosawa’s (Dersu Uzala). Their works were epic in form yet intimate in scope. Their protagonists fought fear, greed and most of all they tried to prevail against nature. Same thing goes for The Revenant? Not quite. Alejandro G. Iñárritu, the master behind such revolutionary works like Amores Perros, Babel and Birdman, has crafted an epic tale of survival based on the true story of frontiersman Hugh Glass who in 1823, in the Rocky Mountains territory, was brutally attacked by a Grizzly bear and left for dead by his companions. This stubborn son of a bitch battled his way through waterfalls, frozen lakes, forests and mountains, crawling for 300 miles in order to find and kill the men who betrayed him. As many viewers noted, in most cases sounding rather disappointed, the film has a very simple plot. Sometimes, we tend to forget that our world is not that complicated. We’re not masters of the universe. We’re just tiny creatures who happen to live in a big world. Everything we do is rather simple; what we call ambition is usually nothing but instinct. We set ourselves a goal, and slowly, slowly we go for it. The Revenant is about that.

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Tom Hardy as John Fitzgerald, murderer, thief and a man with a broken heart.

The setting: Rocky Mountains (although shot in Alberta, Canada, and Argentina), near the Missouri River, Indian Territory, 1823. The protagonists: fur trappers working for a fur trading company, Arikara tribesmen, Pawnee tribesmen, French renegades… and nature. We’re presented with a very primitive world; a world where everything comes at a price, be it a scalp or a buffalo skin.  Every man works for himself. No one sees the bigger picture. Everything is driven by hatred, anger, and yes, revenge. Why shouldn’t it be so simple? All of this still applies to this day and age. We haven’t made such incredible progress; wars are still fought over who has more money, more oil, more power. Kidnappings still happen in the name of ransom and revenge. Corruption still exists because of our primitive instincts. So why complain? The world of Hugh Glass at least doesn’t have skyscrapers, tanks, war missiles and drug cartels. It’s a world where you can still smell the morning grass, where you can hear the wolves howl, where you can walk through the wildest of all places and not be disturbed by poachers and tourists.  Iñárritu and cinematographer  Emmanuel Lubezki (Tree of Life, Gravity, Birdman) make this world seem closer to us. The viewer can almost touch it. And that’s the beauty of it.

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Everything we do is driven by eternal questions.

Hugh Glass was abandoned, buried alive,  his personal items stolen and his favorite rifle taken. That is what the book (by Michael Punke) recounts and what the true story says, but  Iñárritu found it to be missing something. He said; yes, sure, he probably did it to get back his rifle and fight for his honor, but I want to add something to it. That’s how Hugh Glass becomes a father. A father of a Pawnee boy, his half-breed son, named Hawk. Because fatherly love is also a basic human instinct. A mother and a father are willing to sacrifice themselves, to walk through hellfire, to fight the devil if that’s what it takes to save their child. Hugh Glass’ son is killed by a man called Fitzgerald (played by a superb Tom Hardy who creates one of the most human and vulnerable villains of all time). And that’s when Glass loses everything he had, everything he lived for. Everything he ever wanted. It’s a wake-up call that whispers into his ear “keep breathing, crawl out of your grave and fight”. That’s what he does. His heart painted black with hatred and thirst for revenge pushes him to face the brutality of nature, the mercilessness of a world where man has no say over who gets to live and who gets to die.

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You’re my son…

The world of Glass is simple, yes but it’s also emotional. There is love, friendship, sacrifice. The flashbacks that recall his Pawnee wife, a better life, a peaceful tepee, times when everything seemed so magical, tell us that there is more to this character than what we see. In these dream sequences we see Glass contemplate the unexpected. He studies the beautiful, majestic nature. Nature that makes it possible for him to breathe and walk, love, desire. He understands that in nature, there is no enemy, only an ally, a mother that watches over him at all times. Perhaps we don’t see a God, but we sense that out there, in the blue sky, there is something that makes the rain so wet, that makes the snow so cold, that makes the rays of sunlight so warm. There is a force that rules this brutal jungle of animals, this world that we find so savage and inhuman. This world that we try to tame. Why tame it if we can respect it? Why cut off a branch when we can water it? Why trap a butterfly when we can watch it fly in our garden? Why kill a forest when we can admire its magnificence? The Revenant, with its beautiful use of natural lighting and on-location production, is a reminder that everything we have we owe it to something much bigger than money. Much larger than our own ambitions. Something invisible that we can only feel once we submerge ourselves like Hugh Glass. Once we start to crawl in the dirt. Only then.

Only then we will find that ‘something’ we’ve all been looking for.

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Once you start breathing, you just can’t stop.