Michaelangelo Antonioni's 1975 film is dreamlike and mysterious. On one level it is about the literal danger in stealing someone else's identity. That premise alone presents numerous dramatic possibilities, but "The Passenger" goes much further, to become a haunting meditation on rootlessness and ennui. It examines the paradox of seemingly endless freedom gradually becoming a prison with only one means of escape.
David Locke (Jack Nicholson, in one of his greatest performances), is a photojournalist working in North Africa. Out of nothing more than boredom, apparently, he steals the identity of a dead man, the only other guest in his hotel. The man, known only as Mr. Robertson, is barely known to Locke. They have had one conversation, and Robertson has said little more than that he is a businessman who travels all over the world and has no family.
Once Locke becomes Robertson, he begins meeting the appointments in Robertson's datebook. It becomes his own personal Michelin guide and sends him all over Europe to gorgeous locations, filmed to their greatest advantage by Luciano Tovoli. In Munich, Locke learns that he is an arms dealer. But, as Jack Nicholson notes in his wry commentary on the DVD, "at least he knows he's selling to the rebels."
Locke keeps all the appointments in the datebook, but the people he is supposed to meet abruptly stop showing up. He is mystified, confused, bewildered. There is trouble and fear in the silence that seems to meet him everywhere. Along the way he meets a young student, "The Girl," played enigmatically by Maria Schneider. She speaks in epigrams, is intrigued by Locke and views the life he has adopted as something of a game.
If we're not who we know ourselves to be, who are we? This is the question Antonioni repeatedly raises, and wisely never answers. One more than one occasion, Locke asks the girl, "what the ---- are you doing here with me?" Her first response is the most telling: "which 'me'?" Repeatedly he pushes her away, whether to protect her from himself, his alter ego or those who might be after either one of them, we can't say. But she remains cleverly steadfast.
There is very little dialogue and not a great deal of action. But the feeling of menace and dread grows more powerful with each reel. And the payoff -- and it's a big one -- comes in the final seven minutes, with a single shot that is justifiably famous. It neatly ties up all the loose ends, although you may not realize it on first viewing. There are technical questions about how this shot was accomplished which the DVD commentaries answer. As with many scenes in many Antonioni movies, the final shot of "The Passenger" appears to say nothing while saying everything. It's just remarkable. No other word will do.
I did not find screenwriter Mark Peploe's commentary to be particulary interesting. He talks too fast, he backtracks, he gets ahead of himself. He has a female friend with him who had no involvement in the film; she doesn't get the chance to say much and when she raises (good) questions, Peploe fails to answer them. I did not finish listening.
Jack Nicholson's commentary -- which I believe he says is the first he's ever done for a DVD -- is quite good. He has owned the rights to "The Passenger" for many years, and it was his choice to re-release it to theatres in late 2005, and then to release it on DVD. Nicholson takes a great deal of pride in having worked with Antonioni. (He remains the highest-caliber actor to have done so.) Jack sounds like he has one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel, but listen to the words. He's not intrusive, he chooses his words carefully, and he displays great intelligence and sly wit. It is he who says "The Passenger" is "beautifully hypnotic", and he is correct.