Time Out says
The best of Antonioni’s three English-language pictures (which also include ‘Blow-Up’ and ‘Zabriskie Point’), ‘The Passenger’ has been off our screens for around two decades now, the result of a legal quirk that demanded that either Jack Nicholson, the film’s lead actor (and, until recently, owner of the rights to the film) or Antonioni himself had to be present at any public screening of the movie. Finally unleashed, the film will now play at the NFT after being conspicuously absent from the venue’s otherwise comprehensive Antonioni season last summer and will also enjoy a DVD release in a fortnight’s time.
The film opens in the heat of the North African desert. David Locke (Nicholson) is a famed television reporter at the end of his tether. Trudging through the sand on the trail of political rebels, he’s on a sweaty mission to nowhere that’s compounded by harsh terrain and desperate temperatures. When his Land Rover buries itself in a sand dune, it’s a symbol of deeper frustration. He’s a man alienated from his world, reporting on nothing, slipping slowly into the sand. His identity is crumbling.
All of which helps to explain why when he finds his fellow hotel guest, a Brit named David Robertson, dead in his bed, he takes strange advantage of the situation. He swaps sweaty shirts, passport photos and hotel rooms and assumes Robertson’s identity, leaving the dead Robertson his own name. And so David Locke is dead, and Jack Nicholson is now ‘David Robertson’ – an identity which brings with it a whole host of new dangers…
It’s the beginning of a languorous, mysterious and quite captivating thriller that moves from Saharan Africa to London to Munich and, finally, to Barcelona and the Spanish countryside. On paper, it all sounds like classic Graham Greene territory and a standard international thriller, but Antonioni’s direction and Mark Peploe’s script offer something more artful. Events familiar from many such films (the unlocking of secret deposit boxes; car chases; crucial documents; anonymous men lurking on foreign pavements) are mere catalysts and background noises for a stylish mood piece that is as interested in emotion and landscape as plot. The conventions of the thriller are mere starting-points for an examination of Locke’s always ambiguous character. This ambiguity is mirrored in the film’s aesthetic: time and time again, Antonioni’s coolly detached camera, indulged in long takes, wanders off to examine a passing car, perhaps, or a sand dune. The photography is stunning.
Although the pairing of Nicholson with a random, anonymous girl (Maria Schneider, no less, fresh from ‘Last Tango…’) for the latter part of the movie, which is essentially a road-trip through Spain, is perhaps the film’s most superficial tic, ‘The Passenger’ lacks any of the embarrassing contemporary touches that let down parts of both ‘Blow-Up’ (frolicking models) and ‘Zabriskie Point’ (cavorting hippies). Peploe’s screenplay offers a solid inquiry into journalistic nihilism and professional and personal identity, which, coupled with Antonioni’s imagery – as captured by cinematographer Luciano Tovoli – make for an endlessly satisfying experience. Its final, famed seven-minute shot remains a delight to behold.
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Like a turning off of The Sheltering Sky,this film takes off from the desert when Locke's(Nicholson's)jeep's wheels cannot get out of a sand dune.He is a film journalist looking for rebels to interview.he is at the end of his tether and trades in his identity for that of an arms salesman,Robertson,who has died in his hotel.He picks up the other man's life wherever it may lead him.He travels like a fugitive through Germany and Spain picking up Maria Sneider on the way.He has left behind his wife, home and former work colleagues,who attempt to follow him as Robertson, to find out what happened to Locke.Nicholson is at his excellent peak in one of his best roles. There is a marvellous use of British actors ofthe period,Runacre, Hendry and Berkoff.This is Antonioni's last major film and it is a kind of chase thriller and road movie.With the loss and search for identity and the journalistic themes we could be in Graham Greene country.As in L'Eclisse the last ten minutes are some of the most rivetting in world cinema(cf. Haneke's Hidden).