Michelangelo Antonioni was influenced by architecture in many of his works but it’s the shape and outline of the human soul that he draws for us in ‘The Passenger.’
When respected television journalist Jack Nicholson has the chance to assume a new identity he takes it almost on a whim, while his unfulfilling life and self-loathing are only slowly revealed in later flashbacks of his work and his relationship to his English wife.
‘I prefer men to landscapes’ says the Nicholson character but his acne ravaged and scarred back and his frustrations with his life reveal his simmering disgust with his life. Yet this is an admittedly slow moving thriller as his new identity causes him to assume the dangers of living life in another man’s clothes.
At one point Nicholson returns to his Notting Hill flat that he shared with his wife but seems to feel no affinity with his past. This is Nicholson the alienated loner rather than the later superstar famous for his bon viveur lifesytle.
On his travels through Europe in Barcelona he meets the rootless architecture student Maria Schneider, yet his desire to escape himself is as strong as the human desire to stay alive and stay ahead of his pursuers.
Who the agents are in pursuit of the fugitive Nicholson doesn’t really matter. Is his real reason for running away not his fear of facing up to himself? As a French poet once said you always take your own skeleton with you no matter where you go.
And life always ends in death as Antonioni tells us through Schneider’s architecture buff even Barcelona’s famous Gaudî died unexpectedly when he was hit by a bus.
‘I knew a man who was blind…’ Nicholson tells Schneider and the blind man who regains his sight sees little but ugliness all around him. Or maybe his self-disgust comes from seeing himself for the first time?
If you’ve never seen ‘The Passenger’ you should. Its darkness is lifted by the bright sun of Africa and southern Spain and even West London is bright and blisteringly sunny.
There is of course the famous closing scene, shot in one take, where Antonioni seems to make the camera pass through walls and iron railings. But having cut right though to the human soul to one of the master’s of Italian cinema that task was relatively easy.