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Antonioni's stark 1975 classic still fascinates

November 04, 2005|Carina Chocano | Times Staff Writer

Michelangelo Antonioni's "The Passenger" doesn't tell the story of David Locke (Jack Nicholson), a reporter who exchanges identities with a gun runner after finding him dead in his Chadian hotel room (with Algeria doing the honors), so much as it gazes impassively as it unfolds. Disillusioned with his job and isolated (we later learn) in his marriage, Locke sheds his work, personal life and identity to begin a new life to which he has no emotional connection. Meeting up with an equally detached young woman (Maria Schneider), he begins keeping the gun runner's shadowy appointments in London, Munich and throughout Spain, for no other reason perhaps than, as his companion says, "At least he believed in something."

What in different hands would have been a bombastic psychological thriller becomes a stark study of existential alienation. Nicholson exudes vitality and heat even as he withholds all information about Locke's inner life -- an approach that's as mysterious as it is unsettling. As his wife and producer try to track down the man they believe last saw Locke, her interest in her husband is rekindled. And as his producer pieces together a tribute film about the reporter's work, a portrait emerges of a world in which politics, romance and all other attempts at communication and cooperation have broken down.

Antonioni captures the blank cruelty of life by making even the most momentous events uneventful, and by refusing to sentimentalize love, political commitment or death. A fascinating reflection of the era when it was made; but a starker indictment still of what film culture has become. In 1975, "The Passenger" was a night at the movies.

*

'The Passenger'

MPAA rating: PG-13 for some violence, nudity and language.

A Sony Pictures Classics release. Director Michelangelo Antonioni. Producer Carlo Ponti. Screenplay by Mark Peploe, Peter Wollen and Antonioni, story by Peploe. Running time: 1 hour, 59 minutes.

At Landmark's Nuart, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 478-6379; Edwards University Town Center 6, 4245 Campus Drive, Irvine, (949) 854-8818.

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