Sunday, November 13, 2005

Some Thoughts on Antonioni's The Passenger

The films of Michelangelo Antonioni are generally admired more than they are loved, which is quite understandable given how radical and out of the convention his style is. His films lack almost everything that we generally associate with conventional cinema -- plot, or even a story, fully fledged characters, narrative resolution, emotional catharsis etc. Nothing much happens in his films, except perhaps in the minds of his confused and lost characters.

His films are a just a collection of beautifully shot and composed images whose purpose is not to tell a story but to convey a vague sense of mood and feeling. The Passenger, the latest Antonioni film that I have seen is no different. Although at the surface it does have a plot. Jack Nicholson plays a burnt-out TV journalist who is making a documentary in Saharan African country ravaged by some civil war. Like most of Antonioni's characters he is stuck in life. In fact quite literally so, as we see in the beginning of the film his vehicle stuck in the desert sand. So when he finds out that there is a dead body in the next room in his hotel, he impusively decides to switch his identity with the dead man. But soon he finds that he is being pursued by a hostile bunch of people.

As I have summarized it, this sounds like some spy thriller of some kind. But if it is at all a spy thriller, then it is thriller told in extreme slow motion! And the ending is so baffling and irritating, irritating as in to those who expect the film to be some mystery. I also couldn't imagine that a character, played by no less than Jack Nicholson himself (who was at the peak of his career at that time, just after Chinatown and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest), could die like that. Yes, Jack Nicholson dies in the end, most probably is assassinated but we never see how. We don't even see his dead body or his face. It is as if he just disappears from the screen. Just like the last few minutes of L'Eclisse.

Of course, I knew what was coming, having seen some of Antonioni's films earlier (and loved them too) and greatly enjoyed the experience. Jack Nicholson is perfect in the role. He is smart, witty and understated and his acting appears totally effortless. Maria Schneider (the girl from the Last Tango in Paris) acts well too. But in case you are expecting some buttery delight, there are no sex scenes in the film, but there is always a feeling of a languorous sexuality whenever she is on screen which works very well with the overall mood. And of course, as is typical of Antonioni's films, the landscapes are captured beautifully throughout. In fact early on in the film, Jack Nicholson character remarks, surveying the lifeless desert landscape in front of him, that he "prefers men to landscapes". I could imagine Antonioni chuckling silently at this thought. He surely finds landscapes far more interesting than people, even when they have faces and personalities of Monica Vitti or Jack Nicholson.

One of the scenes in the film that I really liked and which is coming back to me again and again is when Maria Schneider asks Jack Nicholson what is he escaping from. And then he tells her to turn back in the car and see for herself. She then jumps up from the seat waving her hand but soon she gets very pensive when she sees what they are leaving behind. Its a totally empty, long stretch of road. Completely empty and lifeless. It is as if it is emptiness itself. It is beuatifully shot and very evocative.

We all perhaps want to escape, escape from our routine life, life of a comfortable job, life of easy pleasures, life of banalities and shallowness. Even though we don't know where to escape to. But as this film teaches, there is just no escaping from. At least it is incorrect to assume that someone else's life is better than ours. The feeling of emptiness is not something that is associated with a particular person or a mode of life, but rather it is far deeper. It is perhaps a characteristic of life itself, specially in these modern times. Antonioni understood this better than any other filmmaker, that's what makes him one of the greatest artists of modern times. Overall it is a must see for all Antonioni fans. It is not his best work but it is far better than an average European art film. And to those who don't know anything of Antonioni, I will just ask them to go with an open mind. In fact as widely open as possible :)


anurag said...

The talk of emptiness in your post reminded me of La Dolce Vita, which I found to be very much Antonioni-type.

Regarding emptiness, do you remember this dialogue from The Seventh Seal?

Who will take care of that child. God, the devil, the nothingness? The nothingness, perhaps?

Perhaps nothingness will follow us to the other world, if any :)

Alok said...

In fact Lo Dolce Vita and L'avventura were released in the same year and people often compare the two films. In that year's Cannes festival, Fellini got the golden palm that year while Antonioni had to content himself with a "special jury mention", not to say booed by the audiences!

They are indeed very similar thematically. But I think Antonioni is far more "abstract" and formal in his shot compositions and eschews all Felliniesque drama whenever possible. In that sense his films are more "pure" than those of Fellini and other European filmmakers of his generation.

Nothingness...You remember the last scene of Bergman's Persona? The mute actress finally learns to speak and the word she says is... "Nothingness"!.

If it was someone other than Bergman, I would have died laughing at the pretentiousness of that scene. That was too much :)

Other world? There is no other world. There is only nothingness. And guess what, it is better this way!!

anurag said...

ya, she says Nothing. Good that you brought Persona. Of all the films seen this year, I think L'avventura and Persona remain the most modern pieces of art.