“The Passenger” - Michelangelo Antonioni (1975)

After the relatively modest results from Zabriskie Point (1970), even Michelangelo Antonioni’s loyal fans may have wondered if his powers of artistic expression were in permanent decline.  But with his next feature fiction film production, The Passenger (1975), the writer-director turned away from the political and returned to the philosophical existential themes that had driven such earlier artistic successes, as L'Avventura (1960), La Notte  (1961),  L'Eclisse (1962), Red Desert (1964), and Blow-Up (1966).  And on this occasion he was supported by having perhaps the two most magnetic and compelling screen personages of the time, Jack Nicholson and Maria Schneider.  The result was one of Antonioni’s greatest works [1,2,3,4].

Actually, The Passenger initially does seem to have a political theme, since it concerns a television reporter’s investigation of revolutionary turbulence in North Africa.   But it eventually reveals itself to be an examination of existential dissatisfaction with contemporary personal and social narratives in our modernist world.  So the film very much situates itself within the thematic contexts of Antonioni’s earlier successes. 

Although some critics have likened The Passenger to L’Avventura, because they both share barren landscapes and a key missing person [4], the most thematically comparable of Antonioni’s earlier works here are Il Grido (1957) and Red Desert.  Both of those films involve principal characters who have reached a fundamental disconnect with the world – they are so alienated that they no longer see how to go on living. 

Now one might complain that such disaffection with reality arises only with bored people who have over-intellectualized what they see around them and have too much time on their hands.  But this film is not merely an intellectual enterprise; it is about direct experience. Here in The Passenger, as similarly with Red Desert and Blow-Up, Antonioni tells his tale not reflectively with words, but cinematically with sight and sound, giving the viewer the feel for the basically existential conditions under consideration.

And as with Red Desert and Blow-Up, the key theme is the narrative construction of reality [5]. It is in terms of the narratives that we construct our understanding of the world around us – and how we understand the past and indeed the temporality of the world, too [5,6,7].  And in fact we even understand ourselves primarily by means of and in terms of the stories we construct and memorize about ourselves.  These stories are our selves.  With respect to characteristic gender difference, Antonioni’s vision in La Notte, Red Desert, and Blow-Up was that men are more comfortable with constructing such narratives and sticking to them, while women are more observant and opportunistic, always ready to hitch on to a new narrative that appears before them.  The same tendencies hold here, too, in The Passenger.  So we can say that, as was the case with Blow-Up, the key theme underlying The Passenger is not about social responsibility, but more about what is ultimately real.  This is because it is Antonioni’s premise that what is real can only be understood in terms of some narrative that we have constructed (or at least co-constructed) from the situations that we are in.

This leads us to the problem that David Locke, the principal character in The Passenger, faces. He is a reporter interested in arriving at an "objective” picture of the world that he is reporting. But he realizes that what he is reporting is merely the narrative that he has constructed, and he is dissatisfied with the limitations of those narratives, because those limitations all come from the limitations that he sees in himself, i.e. his personal narrative.  He feels that he cannot find the “truth”, because, as he says at one point, “we translate every situation, every experience into the same old codes”.

Note that the genius of Antonioni is not only revealed by his construction of film narratives that are fundamentally about reality’s narrative nature, but also by his creative mise-en-scene that reflects this narrativity. In The Passenger he employs several cinematic techniques that highlight intuitive narrative construction on the part of the viewer:

  1. Slow disclosure.  The background contexts of many situations are not explained, so the viewer is forced, more so than in usual films, to build up the narrative context in his or her mind.  We know little about David Locke’s background and even less about the “Girl” that he meets later on.  I will refer to this maneuver as MeS1 (for mise-en-scene technique #1).
  2. Focalization of the invisible witness. The “invisible witness” is the viewer that is invisible to the participants on display but who is nevertheless watching what is going on.  What we mean by “focalization” is the perspective that this invisible witness is taking. Often the invisible witness is seeing things from the point-of-view of a particular character, even to the point of visualizing his or her thoughts. All cinema-goers are familiar with this convention, but Antonioni plays with it in order to highlight its nature in narrative construction. This makes the invisible witness more visible.  For example some shots appear to reflect the point-of-view of some player, but they then continuously curl back on themselves and focus on the perceiving player in a reflexive manner (MeS2).
  3. Distraction of the invisible witness.  There are other times when the invisible witness seems to be distracted by things going on in the vicinity. The camera wanders off momentarily looking at things that are not part of the main story, before it switches its attention back to the principal characters (MeS3).  For example, at one point the camera wanders of to track some bugs crawling up an electrical wire. This suggests that the narrative focus is sometimes lost, which is what happens to all of us when we are in the process of narrative co-construction.
  4. Mixing past and present perspectives. Another focalization issue concerns flashback memories.  Antonioni sometimes presents situations in which the viewer, via the invisible witness, may be confused as to whether what is being presented is happening now or is a memory (MeS4).
The cast of the film comprises five characters:
  • David Locke (played by Jack Nicholson) is a television reporter who covers contemporary news for documentary films produced by an English TV news channel.
  • David Robertson (Charles Mulvehill) is an illegal arms merchant who sells weapons to paramilitary groups in Africa.
  • “The Girl” (Maria Schneider) is a young, unnamed woman who meets and befriends Locke.
  • Rachel Locke (Jenny Runacre) is David Locke’s wife
  • Martin Knight (Ian Hendry) is a TV producer and film editor who has supervised Locke’s documentary productions.
The story goes through five phases of development, each of which traces a further stage of David Locke’s psychological disintegration.

1.  The Escape from Self
At the outset we see David Locke struggling to make contacts with locals in a bleak North African desert area (MeS1).  The only thing he can seem to understand is the gesture demanding that he offer them a cigarette. He’s apparently attempting to make contact with a rebel group out in the mountains, but he gets fooled by a local operative and winds up with his jeep stuck in the desert sands. After a characteristic Jack Nicholson temper tantrum during which he shouts out to the skies, “I don’t care!”, Locke makes the long trek back to the local village on foot.

Back in his hotel, Locke discovers that the occupant of the neighboring room and the only other European in the village has just died of a heart attack.  As a reporter, Locke had made a tape recording of a conversation he had earlier had with this man, David Robertson, but he had learned almost nothing about the man. 

There is an example of MeS2 and MeS4 here.  Starting from a shot of Locke listening in his room, the camera pans over to the window showing Locke and Robertson talking in an apparent flashback.  The next shot shows Locke and Robertson continuing another conversation and then, in the same shot, continuously panning over to Locke listening to his tape recorder.  Their conversation is significant.  Robertson says that as a traveler all the taxis, airports, and hotels become the same after awhile.  But Locke says that’s because we translate all those experiences into the same old code: “ however hard you try, it stays so difficult to get away from your old habits.”  Here Locke is referring to his frustration over trying to escape from his current narrative self-description.

In an effort to make a great escape from his current and unsatisfactory self-narrative, Locke suddenly decides to switch identities with the dead man. Thanks to the fact that the two of them looked somewhat similar, he switches the photos in their passports and moves the corpse over to his own hotel room. Then he telephones the hotel manager and informs him that David Locke has just died.

Soon the news of Locke’s death reaches London, and we see a shot of his wife, Rachel, looking bored and impassive while watching a TV interview of people reminiscing about the life of the well-known reporter Locke.

2.  Becoming David Robertson
Locke has now taken on the identity of Robertson, about whom he knows next to nothing – just that there is a reference to a storage box 58 in the Munich airport. First he goes to London and, now sporting a mustache for disguise, walks though a park where he happens to casually notice a pretty young woman sitting reading on a park bench.  This is the nameless “Girl” who will appear later in the story.  He then sneaks into his home and collects some useful personal documents that he will need. He notices dispassionately a note tacked onto a wall suggesting that his wife Rachel was having an affair with someone named Stephen while he was away in Africa. Clearly his relationship with his wife had been stale for some time.
Locke then travels to Munich and collects a satchel belonging to Robertson from Box 58 at the  airport. The contents of that satchel contain information about firearms and weapons that Robertson was evidently selling to his African clients. Enjoying his new identity, Robertson seems happy for once. He rents a car and stops off at a cemetery where there is a small church hosting a wedding ceremony, which Locke looks in on.  Here again there are some examples worth mentioning of Antonioni’s narrative digressions.  Locke is watching the wedding ceremony and then looks away as if bored, but the camera continues focusing on the wedding as if the invisible witness is more interested in the wedding than Locke is (MeS3).  Locke now has a flashback memory of himself back home demonically enjoying a big bonfire that he has made in his back yard, much to the consternation of his critical wife.  This emphasizes their disconnect.  Then the camera switches to Rachel looking out from their house onto the same backyard, which is now empty of Locke or any bonfire.  Is this Locke still in flashback, or is it a cut to Rachel, perhaps in the present, by the invisible witness (MeS2, MeS4)?

Locke’s ruminations in the now-empty church are interrupted when he is approached by two men, one of them a black man, who had observed him in the airport. Believing him to be Robertson, they ask Locke about his documents. Locke turns over to them his firearms info, and their delighted response is to hand him an envelope stuffed with cash.  They tell him that their next meeting will be in Barcelona. 

The action switches to London, where Rachel discusses things with Locke’s boss, Martin Knight in the TV editing room.  The cinematography in the Rachel sequences tends to be more straightforward and less representative of Locke’s narratively-compromised mind. She mentions to Knight her criticism that she thought her objectivity-seeking husband had always accepted too much in his interviews (meaning that he hadn’t incorporated his own narrative focus on these occasions), and she adds further that the two of them hadn’t had a close relationship for the last couple of years. Indicative of that is an ensuing flashback of her one-day visit to Locke in Africa, during which she watched while he interviewed the autocratic president of the North African country.  After the interview they have the following revealing exchange:
Rachel:  “You involve yourself in real situations, but you’ve got no real  
                    "Why didn’t you tell that man..."
  “. . . that he’s a liar?"
Rachel:  “Yes.”
David:  “I know, but those are the rules.”
Rachel:  “I don’t like to see you keep them.”
David:  “Then why did you come?”
Back in Munich, some government thug-assassins capture, torture, and presumably kill the rebel operatives who had met Locke in the Munich airport. Locke, meanwhile, is going through Robertson’s diary and looking at upcoming appointments that Robertson had planned.  He is supposed to be at the Parque Communal Ubraculo in Barcelona a couple of days hence.  Then two-days later he is supposed to pick up someone named "Lucy" in Barcelona and then a few days later see a “Daisy” at the Hotel de La Gloria in southern Spain. So he heads to Barcelona.

3.  Rendezvous in Barcelona
Locke arrives in Barcelona.  Meanwhile back in London, Rachel learns that there was another person, David Robertson, at the hotel where David Locke died, and she asks Martin Knight to see if he can locate this person. So Knight sets about investigating and eventually traces “Robertson” (now Locke, of course) to Barcelona and travels there to seek him out.

In Barcelona, Locke is alarmed to see Knight on the street and manages to sneak away unnoticed.  He randomly runs into one of the famous picturesque buildings designed by Antoni Gaudi and happens to see The Girl again, with whom he now strikes up an acquaintance.  Knight has booked a room in the same hotel that “Robertson” is staying in, so Locke enlists The Girl to go back to his hotel room and snatch his belongings.  Then the two of them take to the road in a car that Locke has rented.  As they drive down the road, The Girl asks Locke what he is running away from. He tells her to turn her back to the front seat and look backward, signifying that he is running away from everything past in the quest for freedom. The Girl does so joyously. 

They stop at a café, and the invisible witness (the camera) gets distracted by cars passing by outside before finally focusing on Locke and The Girl. Although The Girl, like many female characters in Antonioni’s narratives, is a narrative opportunist (i.e. with no fixed self-narrative and ready to hitch on to the narrative of an interesting man that she meets), her appearance at the halfway point in the film brings needed engagement and vitality to the story.  Locke is now, finally, at least sometimes meaningfully interacting with someone, and he tells her his story about his masked identity.  At a hotel they have booked that evening, they come together and make love.

4.  Locke and The Girl on the Road
With the urgings of The Girl to boost his flagging energy, Locke decides to continue attempting to keep up the appointments listed in Robertson’s diary. They head south for the next one, which is supposed to take place in the picturesque village of Plaza de la Iglesia. But noone shows up for the appointed meeting, which is not surprising to the viewer given the fact that the two rebel operatives were murdered by government assassins in Munich.

Meanwhile Rachel in London looks through Locke’s belongings that have been returned to her by the African country’s consular officer and discovers that Locke’s passport has the picture of a strange man (Robertson) on the identification page.  Something is clearly wrong, and she perhaps wonders if her husband is still alive somewhere.  So she heads to Spain, herself, and seeks the assistance there of the police.

As Locke fails to make Robertson’s connections and he becomes aware of Rachel’s and the police pursuit of him, he and The Girl flee again.  But Locke is becoming more depressed about the hopelessness of establishing a new narrative foundation for his life. He realizes he can’t escape from the “self” that has been built up by his past.  He suggests to The Girl that they escape to Tangier, but she tells him, “you can’t be like that . . . just escaping. . . . Keep the appointment” (in Osuna). So he sends her off on a bus so that they can rendezvous later in Tangier, while he heads for Osuna and the Hotel de La Gloria.

5.  Finale at the Hotel de La Gloria
The final section of the film is really a smooth continuation of the previous section, but it is aesthetically so gloomy and elegiacal that I have identified it separately.  Barely escaping from the police searching for Robertson, Locke manages to hitch a ride to the Hotel de La Gloria.  When he checks in, he is informed by the concierge that “Mrs. Robertson arrived hours ago. . . We don’t need your passport.”  When he goes to his room, he sees that The Girl is there in the adjoining room. She hasn’t gone to Tangier, and she is sticking with him.  Locke disconsolately relates to her a story about a man who had been blind since birth but who had regained his sight at the age of forty.  At first this man was delighted by the wonders that he saw, but then gradually he saw the world was filled with filth and clutter – aspects which had not been part of his previous imaginings.  After a few days this newly-sighted man committed suicide. The man could not forge interesting narratives from the world that he encountered.  So, too, Locke expresses to the girl his submission to defeat. Life no longer holds any interest for him, since he cannot escape the self that he despises. He rhetorically asks her why she even bothers to stick around with him.  Then he instructs her to leave him.

The Girl goes out into the courtyard, and Locke is left morosely smoking his cigarette in the hotel room.  There follows the almost wordless ending of the film that lasts ten minutes, including a celebrated 6½-minute dirge-like tracking shot (manifesting MeS2 and MeS3) that has been the subject of much critical attention.  This gradually shifting view of the invisible witness starts in Locke’s hotel room and gazes out of the barred window into the courtyard, where various minor events take place: a driver-training car passes through, some boys are playing ball, The Girl passes by, and another car with the previously-seen government assassins comes in and stops.  Through all this the camera slowly tracks forward towards the window and eventually evidently passes through the window bars and comes into the courtyard.  During this period there are various random background noises heard, including a possible off-camera gunshot sound. Then the view pans around to the right as a police car carrying Rachel comes into the courtyard and stops.
Finally the camera pans around, completing an about-face, and looks through the same room window again, this time from the outside looking in, as The Girl, the concierge, and Rachel come in to look upon Locke’s motionless body on the bed.

The final shot shows stasis.  The narrative course for David Locke and the film has come to a dead end.  Locke had entered into Robertson’s narrative course, but he was unable to engage it or alter its course.  Rachel’s final words as she contemplates Locke’s body are telling – “I never knew him”.  Locke struggled and failed to know himself, too.
In Antonioni’s earlier films, the issue was concerned with the apparent impossibility of finding a meaningful and eternal love relationship.  Narrative construction on the part of the characters was important, but subservient to the goal of forming a meaningful relationship.  Thus, for example, the novelist Giovanni in La Notte was an expert at narrative construction, but he couldn’t construct a love narrative for himself that would last.  But as we move to later films, such as Red Desert and Blow-Up, the level of alienation becomes more severe, and the issue is how to relate to the external world – how to find out something, anything, that is “objectively” true.  In The Passenger, both of these concerns are at issue.  The fact that Antonioni can convey these feelings by showing how the perception of the entire world is colored by inner psychological turmoil (by, for example the various mise-en-scene techniques) make the presentation aesthetically expressionistic.

Note that the original title of the film was Profession: Reporter, which called attention to Locke’s profession as a person whose job it was to report the truth.  But like the photographer Thomas in Blow-Up, Locke began to see that what he was reporting as objectively “true” was merely someone’s prejudicial narrative-based perspective.  At one point Rachel listens to a tape-recording of Locke speaking to Robertson during which Locke remarks:
“Wouldn’t it be good if we could just forget everything that happens and just throw it all away, day by day. . . . People believe what I write and why? Because it conforms to their expectations, and mine as well, which is worse.”
Locke was frustrated that he couldn’t find a truth that wasn’t besmirched and rendered questionable by his self – a self that he had become bored with and from which he wanted to escape.  This is the fundamental theme of this excellent film.

In the critical literature concerning The Passenger, there are two items that should perhaps be addressed.  One concerns that penultimate 6½-minute tracking shot, which has been compared with Michel Snow’s 45-minute film, Wavelength (1967), which consists of a single and excruciatingly slow 45-minute zoom shot. However, the two films are not comparable.  Wavelength was essentially an experiment, and a not very successful one, at that.  The zoom there is so slow in that film that the viewer is barely aware of any frame movement at all – in fact that is presumably the point.  But the camera movement is more observable (the viewer is more aware of it) in the long tracking shot in The Passenger.  So I don’t think there is any point in comparing Snow’s dry effort with Antonioni’s film.

The other critical item raised is more interesting and concerns the suggestion that The Girl is actually the estranged wife of David Robertson and is following her own agenda [3,8].  In fact she may be Lucy or Daisy.  In support of this possibility, it is pointed out that
  1. The Girl sees Locke in London (it is argued that this was not accidental).
  2. The Girl urges Locke to continue following up on Robertson’s appointments in his diary.
  3. The Girl checked into the Hotel de La Gloria as Robertson’s wife and so must have had convincing documentation to convince the concierge.
Although this is an intriguing theory, I don’t subscribe to it.  Locke’s initial encounters with The Girl are too contingent to have been part of a planned operation.  Moreover, The Girl as portrayed by Schneider is too spontaneous to be part of a larger subterfuge.

Returning to an overall assessment of the film, it is worth remarking that since The Passenger unites the two Antonioni existential themes – the frustrations in finding meaningful (a) personal relationships and (b) world relationships (i.e. objective reality) – we might conclude that this film is Antonioni’s culminating achievement.  I am tempted to believe that this is indeed the case. Certainly Antonioni was immeasurably aided in this enterprise by the participation of his two stars.  Jack Nicholson, who was adept at displaying emotional outbursts in other films, gives here a controlled performance.  (This was characteristic of people directed by Antonioni, who also coaxed low-key performances out of other potentially volatile male actors, such as Marcello Mastroianni and Richard Harris.)  Nevertheless, it is Maria Schneider’s presence that truly elevates the film to another level.  To me, she was one of the most beautiful actresses ever to appear on screen, and this was her most memorable performance.  She is the perfect contrast to Jenny Runacre’s characterization of Rachel, who comes across as a calculating person perpetually seeking self-satisfaction.  Schneider’s natural beauty and innocence were just what was needed to convey the possibility of an ideal: genuine, loving engagement. 

In some ways The Passenger is closest to Antonioni’s Il Grido.  Both films feature a man relentlessly descending into despair and ultimate alienation (and annihilation).  But Aldo, in Il Grido, is hopelessly looking for a meaningful loving relationship.  On the other hand, Locke here is hopelessly looking not for another person but for himself.  What Locke really needed was right there in front of him – The Girl. But he couldn’t see it in time. Had he entered more fully into the relationship with her, he could have found himself, and life, too.

  1. Andrew Sarris, “An End to Antonioniennui”, The Village Voice, April 14, 1975, pp. 75-76.
  2. Nick Schager, “The Passenger”, Slant, October 5, 2005.
  3. Jack Turner,“Antonioni's The Passenger as Lacanian Text”, Other Voices, 1 (3), January 1999.
  4. Mike Grost, “The Passenger”, Classic Film and Television, http://mikegrost.com/antonion.htm#Passenger.
  5. By “narrative” I mean the broad psychological concept or temporal ordering, not the narrow, reductionist focus on “language games”.
  6. Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative, volumes 1, 2, and 3, (1984, 1985, 1988), The University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
  7. Jerome Bruner, "The Narrative Construction of Reality" (1991). Critical Inquiry, 18:1, 1-21.
  8. Juli Kearns, “Film - Antonioni’s The Passenger", Idyllopus Press.

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