Michelangelo Antonioni's "The Passenger" was originally released in Europe 30 years ago as "Professione: reporter," and both titles are apt. A lithe, just-balding Jack Nicholson does indeed portray a television journalist, covering a vaguely drawn civil conflict in an unnamed African country. But his character, a U.S.-educated Brit named David Locke, is also a passenger -- a passive, disaffected accomplice in his own life.
Well, not entirely passive. Early in "The Passenger," which is being rereleased in the version Antonioni liked best, Locke assumes the identity of a dead man who turns out to have been a gunrunner. Of course, today we'd call him an arms dealer, but in Antonioni's romantic view, he's on the side of the angels, helping to arm a band of renegades as they fight a corrupt and cynical ruler.
Radical chic politics suffuse "The Passenger," but like most of Antonioni's films, it's less about the world than about the psyche of one man and an erotically charged, if verbally challenged, relationship with a beautiful woman. The latter is portrayed here by Maria Schneider (fresh from "Last Tango in Paris"), whom Antonioni revealingly calls "the Girl." That says it all about a film that, while pictorially stunning, looks today like a museum piece of quintessentially male heroic filmmaking -- with all its strengths and limitations.
In terms of pure technical prowess, Antonioni, who is now in his nineties and whose most recent film was released last year as part of the trilogy "Eros," was at his best with "The Passenger," which contains textbook examples of the director's deliberate, pendular camera moves, his dramatic backdrops, his love of stark architecture and his gnomic approach to storytelling (Antonioni wrote "The Passenger" with Mark Peploe and Peter Wollen). As in "L'Eclisse" (1962), which was released on DVD this summer, "The Passenger" follows two attractive people through a series of dramatic settings while they utter cryptic phrases to one another. In this case, Nicholson asks Schneider heavy-sounding questions like "Do you believe in coincidences?" and "Isn't it funny how things happen?"
They're all variations on the abiding theme in cinema and rock-and-roll, a theme that Bruce Springsteen recently summed up as: "Would you please pull your pants down?" She does, but even Schneider's ripe sexuality isn't enough to keep the existential dogs at bay. Nicholson's Locke continues on his aimless quest to find himself -- or lose himself, as suggested by the film's most famous shot: a masterly, seven-minute final take that travels from a hotel room to a town square and back, during which a life is irrevocably changed.
Antonioni presents it all with cool, aestheticized detachment, coaxing flat, affectless performances from actors who are carefully deployed within vast expanses of space and silence, and who are rarely allowed to reveal their characters emotionally. His is a cerebral, supremely visual style of filmmaking, which allows for beguiling surfaces but doesn't go any further. His fans argue that this leaves the viewer to read the master's meanings between the lines, but there are some of us who think that what you see is what you get, and that is all Antonioni was ever interested in.
Ultimately, there's something heartless about Antonioni's filmmaking, an arrogance that can produce that bravura final sequence but that can also offhandedly include actual footage of an African prisoner being killed by a firing squad. That final seven-minute shot may be the most famous in "The Passenger," but the execution is the most despicable.
The Passenger (119 minutes, at Landmark's E Street Cinema) is rated PG-13 for violence, nudity and profanity.