Now available in the director’s slightly longer preferred version, Michelangelo Antonioni’s Jack Nicholson vehicle looks better now than it did 30 years ago, in part because it’s so clearly passé. A celebrity telejournalist (Nicholson) attempting to report on a North African liberation movement ventures into terrain that mirrors his own emptiness. Then fate takes a hand. The only other Westerner in his edge-of-the-Sahara hotel conveniently suffers a coronary. Nicholson switches passports to assume an exciting new identity. Following the dead man’s itinerary, he is now a left-leaning international gunrunner.
The Passenger is a relic of romantic third worldism as well as the moment in international co-production when European auteurs hitched their wagons to eager Hollywood stars. (It’s not difficult to read Elaine May’s Ishtar as parodying both tendencies.) What dates The Passenger, in addition to Antonioni’s gloriously languorous style, is its politicized angst. Nicholson’s character reaches a dead end somewhere around Gibraltar. Antonioni dramatizes this with a magnificently choreographed slow zoom that, lasting at least five minutes, allows half the characters in the movie to traverse the courtyard of an entropic posada. Leisurely and old-fashioned as The Passenger may be, this tour de force ending is worth the wait.