The Passenger

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The execs at Sony Pictures would never admit it, but we most likely have Sofia Coppola to thank for this pristine rerelease of one of director Michelangelo Antonioni’s most beautiful and enduring head-scratchers. When Coppola accepted her best screenplay Oscar for Lost in Translation in 2004, she gave a shout out to the legendary Italian ennui-master, lumping him in with visionary director Wong Kar-Wai. She restored a little bit of luster to Antonioni’s name — considering his recent efforts have been mostly laughable — and introduced him to a new generation of film geeks more familiar with Austin Powers than his swinging ’60s masterpiece, Blow-Up.

Now, 30 years after its original release, we’re being treated to Antonioni’s last truly successful effort — a lush, hypnotic meditation on identity; it’s also the closest the director ever came to making a conventional thriller. The Passenger begins with a mystery not unlike the ones in some of the director’s other would-be nail-biters, including Blow-Up or L’Avventura. Deep in the deserts of Africa, journalist David Locke (Jack Nicholson) befriends a mysterious “businessman” named Robertson (Charles Mulvehill) who suddenly drops dead in the hotel room next door. With detached, methodical care, Locke switches their passports and most of their personal belongings, and decides to return to England posing as Robertson. There, he finds that the man wasn’t the innocuous businessman he made himself out to be, but a wealthy arms trader. What Locke plans to do with this new information we’re never quite sure, but it’s clear that he’s interested in getting far, far away from his past, specifically his former lover Rachel (Jenny Runacre).

This being an Antonioni film, it may take 20 or 30 minutes of screen time for the director to divulge even the smallest bits of information; it’s not until the movie’s almost half-over that we’re introduced to Locke’s new love interest, played by the cherubic Maria Schneider (of Last Tango in Paris). But along the way, we’re treated to the lulling, transfixing rhythms of Nicholson’s performance. Whether he’s trying to transport a corpse or investigating his old apartment, the actor navigates the fine line between being devious and sympathetic. After meeting with nefarious associates of Robinson’s in a church in Germany, Locke mutters, “Jesus Christ ... oh, sorry” — the kind of line that only Nicholson could ad-lib.

Then there’s the splendor of the surroundings. Globetrotting from Africa to Spain to England and back again, Antonioni dwells on the seemingly insignificant details that other directors leave on the cutting room floor. When Nicholson is at a roadside diner, the camera pans back and forth along cars whizzing by; in a more conventional film, it would add an element of suspense, but in The Passenger, the scene is simply there for the splendor and beauty of it all.

In the film’s bravura finale, an uninterrupted seven-minute shot in which everything and nothing seem to happen at once, the director caps an entire career of quiet, expressionistic moments. When a character is declared dead, one of his friends mentions he “had a different perspective, a kind of detachment. He had this great talent for observation.” The line speaks as much about Antonioni as it does his characters.

 

At the Detroit Film Theatre, inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237. 7 and 9:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Nov. 25-26; 5 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 27.

Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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