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The Passenger is something of a guilty pleasure for me. That isn’t because it’s a bad film. Made by anyone other than Michelangelo Antonioni, it could rightly be hailed as a stylish thriller. Compared with Antonioni’s earlier, ground breaking work, however, it is relatively conventional. Unlike his best films, it opens no new territories of potential expression. Thus my “guilt” results from enjoying The Passenger as a smooth, sexy, atmospheric movie rather than as the innovative experience of which Antonioni was capable. To put the matter simply, I recognize the brilliance and audacity of Antonioni’s L’avventura, but I’d rather watch The Passenger.

Jack Nicholson stars as David Locke, a British journalist covering an African civil conflict. Going through a personal crisis, he is given a freak chance to change his identity when a fellow Brit staying in the same hotel dies of a heart attack. Switching passports, he decides to follow the itinerary of the dead man and finds himself enmeshed in an arms smuggling racket. He meets a young woman (Maria Schneider) who accompanies him as he tries to keep the appointments in the dead man’s calendar. He is soon being chased both by government agents of that African country and his own friends and family, who realize that something is amiss when they see the wrong photo on Locke’s returned passport.

The script for The Passenger could make an entertaining film from any competent director. A Hitchcock could have turned it into an emotional roller coaster that keeps us on the edge of our seats. Antonioni creates suspense, but it clearly is not his primary goal. The combination of the fairly standard content with Antonioni’s fluid, unpredictable approach gives The Passenger its unique feel, making a straightforward thriller into a sensuous, existential mystery.

While the thriller format assures the film will entertain, it also effectively prevents it from achieving the depths of Antonioni’s great work. His relaxed, exploratory form, usually in the service of character dynamics or textural evocation, here feels more decorative than central to the conception. There’s a scene in a road-side café, for example, that begins with the camera panning back and forth with the traffic before settling on Nicholson and Schneider. Neat, inventive, striking and all that, but what exactly does it have to do with the scene?

Such moments (and especially the famous long-take penultimate shot of the film) make it tempting to conclude that The Passenger is ultimately a filmmaker’s film, and thus why I like it personally. It is full of nifty examples of how to escape the bounds of traditional narrative, of how to put a story in its proper place by making it one thread in a tapestry of personal responses to the environment. The price is that the results are neither as immediately satisfying as traditional methods, nor as profound as the director’s best work. As much as I enjoy The Passenger, in other words, it doesn’t supplant L’avventura.

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