The Passenger (PG) <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

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The Independent Culture

The rerelease of Michelangelo Antonioni's The Passenger is a genuine movie event. First seen in 1975, it dropped off the radar after its star, Jack Nicholson, bought the rights, and then contractual problems kept it out of circulation. Recently he sold it to Sony Classics, though this reprint does not include the missing 20-odd minutes of Antonioni's original version.

No matter; what we have is absolutely worth the wait. What to call it? A quest movie, possibly, though what is being sought remains open to debate. Nicholson plays a TV reporter, David Locke, whom we first see toiling through a burning African desert in search of a war he never finds. His car gets stuck in the sand. Back in his hotel he discovers his acquaintance, a man named Robertson, lying dead in the next room, and on a mysterious impulse he assumes his identity. Robertson turns out to have been a gun-runner, and Locke, stealing the dead man's passport and diary, decides to keep his appointments, a scheme that will pinball him from London to Munich to Barcelona.

That summary hardly gets at the mood of fateful lethargy Antonioni sets here. Nicholson, in the prime of his acting life in the mid-Seventies, was evidently under director's orders to tamp down the charm, and even the baby-faced presence of Maria Schneider (Brando's amour from Last Tango) can't wheedle a smile from him. The film keeps promising to turn into a thriller - there's even a car chase at one point - but then withdraws into its shell once again, refusing the lucidities of plot and motive.

Early in the movie Locke laments that, however far you travel, "it stays so difficult to get away from your own habits", and as he criss-crosses Europe he learns that there's no escaping from himself, an impasse suggested in the long, enigmatic take that seals the film, like a coffin. We have been watching, essentially, one man's disappearing act, performed at a pace that from anyone else would prompt the slow handclap. Under Antonioni's control, for some reason, it is morbidly, magnificently involving.