The Passenger, whose compelling naturalistic score consists entirely of the sounds of life itself, places us in the restlessly unsettled mind of Jack Nicholson, nearly lost in the Saharan desert — lost spiritually. He is David Locke, a television reporter questioning his work and the meaning of it all. He has little will to go on, and so, seeking a new destiny, he fakes his demise by assuming the identity of a chance fellow traveler following the latter’s untimely death.
That precarious act, perhaps Locke knows, will lead to his end, and he seems no longer to care — even given the attention paid him by a beautiful woman, played by Maria Schneider, whom he meets along the way and with whom he falls in love. She offers to help him escape his otherwise indifferent wife from London. The wife and Locke's colleagues, having figured out what he is up to, set out to find and rescue their “deceased” journalist. The moment Locke exchanges his passport for that of a dead arms dealer is the moment that seals his ultimate fate.
In this film, director Michelangelo Antonioni knows, as most of us have experienced, how much meaning occurs when nothing seems to be happening at all. Those are the insightful — the sometimes dangerous — moments in spare stark silence when we face the terrible beauty of the world and of our own solitary relationship to it. Here, those moments of contemplation abound like silent poetry shimmering with an eerie peacefulness. There is a rare comforting quality to this film, as if Antonioni is embracing the human condition with wise compassion.
So flawlessly realized, The Passenger to my believing eyes seems about as perfect as a movie can be, and while watching it again (and thinking of other films I’ve recently seen, like Death in Venice and last year’s Children of Men), I was struck by the thought that film may have reached a status superior to the “living theatre.”
Screen directors frame each scene so that we, the audience, altogether view exactly what they wish us to see, angle by angle. And a film can faithfully endure, intact, like a painting or a great piece of architecture. Finding the art in fatalism, Antonioni has given us a sweeping glimpse of a perilous world through which succeeding generations pass without ever really changing it at all.
Here is the young Nicholson when he acted rather than, in later years, hammed it up for an idolatrous fan base ready to applaud his every stupid grimace. Here was what Nicholson was before the Hollywood machine subverted his talents into stand up comedy shtick.
In The Passenger, he is its living soul. I am in awe of this cinematic masterpiece.
A note to anybody familiar with Jack Nicholson's work: Both a friend and I seem to recall having seen Nicholson in a film in which he was a passenger on a train — we expected that scene to appear in this film, which it did not. Can anybody out there enlighten me?