Introductory note: 2015 sees the 40th anniversary of Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger (aka Profession: Reporter), arguably one of the Italian director’s greatest masterpieces. To mark the occasion, Senses of Cinema reprints an article on the film originally published in 1979. This lucid essay by US academic Theodore Price, now retired, was originally published under the title “Film Maudit: The Political and Religious Meaning of Antonioni’s The Passenger” in the now long out-of-print Portland, Oregon based journal Cinemonkey (vol. 5, no. 2, 1979).Aside from the title change (at the author’s discretion) and the addition of contextual endnotes by Ken Mogg, this version remains substantially identical to the original. At the time of writing, the author had access to an extended copy of the film’s script and to an interview with Antonioni. A thrust of what Price wrote is that many commentators to that time – and since, he feels – missed the essential point of the film. In his distinctive way, he set himself to show with precision just what the film was actually about. His elucidation of Antonioni’s film has stood the test of time.
This 1975 film of Antonioni’s has, for the most part, assumed an important place in his oeuvre. Yet I find that just about all contemporary reviewers of the film, certainly the American ones, from first to last, seem not to know quite what the film is about, certainly not what it is about politically. Either they like or dislike the film for all the wrong reasons, or at least, for reasons irrelevant to the film’s political and artistic thrust.
They give their readers the impression that the film is enigmatic and difficult to explicate; and so they explicate it very little. I, on the contrary, find the film eminently clear and easy to explicate, and not just in an erudite way for other film specialists, but in a matter-of-fact, unsophisticated way for the intelligent layman.
Many reviewers, not really having understood what Antonioni was on about, make some chance, witty, or cruel remarks about the film, and, far from placing the film politically and artistically, engage in what can only be called bluffing. Or such is my feeling. I have, therefore, developed a very specific five-point litmus test to alert the reader to whether or not they are bluffing.
But first, especially for those who may not have seen The Passenger, let me just give a synopsis of the storyline to help readers get a fix on what the film is about:
The hero is the Jack Nicholson character, David Locke, a man in his early thirties, who is a successful, respected, and rather famous maker of television documentaries for the British public television network. He specializes in political documentaries. He’s not happy at home: his wife argues with him about his work, and she has a lover.
When the film starts, Locke’s in some African country finishing up a documentary on political events and trying to get an interview with a guerrilla leader of the country. He fails to do so, which sparks off what’s evidently a long-smoldering personal dissatisfaction with his life and work.
When a stranger in his hotel, who resembles him physically, dies of a heart attack, Locke swaps “bodies” and passports with him and flies back to Europe so that now everyone thinks that it’s Locke who has died.
The stranger had had an appointment book with meeting dates in Munich, Barcelona, and Osuna; and Locke decides to keep the appointments. We learn that the stranger had in fact been selling guns to the guerrillas in that African country, and the contacts now simply believe that Locke is that man.
In flashbacks to London, where Locke’s colleagues are planning to make a television documentary on his life, we see footage of Locke interviewing the black dictator of the country, we see the (secretly filmed) execution of a guerrilla leader, and we see an interview with a former witchdoctor of the country. The dictator’s secret police now get on the trail of Locke in his new identity, and Locke’s wife and colleague also try to locate him in order to learn more about how he (supposedly) died.
Meanwhile, Locke meets a semi-beatnik type of young girl who is touring Europe studying architecture, especially the buildings of the Spanish architect Gaudí, in whose buildings the two meet and talk. The girl, played by Maria Schneider, tells Locke that Gaudí died after being hit by a bus. Locke looks at Gaudí’s buildings and asks the girl if Gaudí had been crazy. The girl goes off with Locke, they sleep together, and she urges him to keep the gunrunner’s appointment.
The wife, meanwhile, discovers that Locke has changed identities and is, in fact, alive. She tries to locate and warn him that he’s being hunted by the dictator’s secret police, who think he’s that gunrunner. In fact, it is her actions that help lead the secret police to him.
The film ends in a hotel in Osuna, where we don’t see just what happens, but we can assume that the secret police kill Locke. When the wife sees his body, she says she “never knew” him; the girl says she did know him.
Now, if that’s all you know about the story of the film (and, remember, old Aristotle was fond of saying that the “story” of a drama was by far its most important element), it is no wonder that you might not be sure of the thrust of the film and find the film enigmatic or, worse, just a fancy version of an old-fashioned Hollywood chase film, as some reviewers describe it. Well, here is my five-point litmus test to determine whether a critic of the film is bluffing or not:
1. He is bluffing if he or she doesn’t tell you a little about the Spanish architect Gaudí, whose works are so prominent in the film, and whose philosophy of art and life, and whose death, relate so significantly to the theme of the film.
2. He is bluffing if he doesn’t discuss the political events of the real-life African country where Locke is shooting his documentary, and show you how these events relate so centrally to the story of Antonioni’s film. (The country is Chad, where political events have suddenly heated up again as I write this in 1979.)(1)
3. He is bluffing if he doesn’t discuss Chung Kuo Cina (1972) the real-life television documentary that Antonioni made in Red China just before he made The Passenger and that aroused intense bitterness between him and the Chinese leaders. You would think, would you not, that if a film director (Antonioni) had just made a film about the maker of a television documentary about a revolutionary country (the Nicholson character), and that this director (Antonioni) had himself just made a television documentary about a revolutionary country, you could postulate some connection?
4. He is bluffing if he doesn’t discuss The Passenger in relation to some common-knowledge Leninist revolutionary theory that relates dead centre to Nicholson’s artistic malaise in the film and to the general malaise of many real-life liberal reporters of current revolutionary events.(2)
5. Finally, (by far the best test of all), he is bluffing if he doesn’t tell you why the film is called The Passenger, or, if he doesn’t know, doesn’t tell you. (Poor Penelope Gilliatt doesn’t bluff but thinks that the “passenger” of the film is not the Nicholson character but the girl, Maria Schneider, because Schneider is riding in the passenger seat of Locke’s car.) (3)
Before I go on to try and show that I’m not bluffing, let me just place for you quickly the artistic design of the film. This design too is quite simple. It’s similar to that of Fellini’s 8 ½ (1963).
There we have the spiritual and artistic tribulations of the film’s hero-director, Guido (Marcello Mastroianni), who throughout the film can’t seem to make the film he’s working on. Finally, though, he resolves his spiritual and artistic impasse and successfully does make the film, and the film he makes is the film we’ve just seen: 8 ½.
In the same way, Antonioni’s film The Passenger is the genuine film documentary of the Nicholson character’s life, in contrast to the essentially false documentary that Locke’s friends and colleagues are planning to make.
Let’s now take our five points, but working backwards, and show how just a little information about each of them helps explain what Antonioni’s film is all about. First, why is it called The Passenger?
Well, in common parlance, a passenger is someone not in the driver’s seat, not in control of the vehicle, passive, someone along for the ride. This rather vague meaning is what some reviewers (very few) call attention to. It’s not incorrect, but it’s not really the precise reason for the film’s title, as I shall show.
The word has two further meanings, never really mentioned in any review, but impeccably relevant: (1) “passenger” has a long history of meaning a passer-by, a wayfarer, one who is on a journey, going from place to place, stopping here and there, but not for long; and (2) every human being is a passenger on the journey from life to death.
Since there are three important deaths in the film (that of the gunrunner, David Robertson, that of the revolutionary leader, and that of David Locke), there’s no question that the title functions on this level too, and functions well. I shall discuss this aspect more when I discuss our “fourth” death, the real-life death of the architect Gaudí.
But the real meaning of the title, and the one that helps alert us to the political thrust of the film, is more specific. “Passenger” is a term of British slang, and it quite matter-of-factly indicates what the film is all about.
Now, if Antonioni had made a film entitled “The Texas Leaguer”, and this film was nothing about Texas or some league, a conscientious reviewer would simply and easily explain it or else honestly say that he or she did not understand why the film was so titled.
As we know, a “Texas Leaguer” is simply common baseball slang for a fly ball that’s hit too far out of the infield for an infielder to back up fast enough to catch, and too far in from the outfield for an outfielder to race in to catch. It falls safely for a hit, usually an extra-base one. The term lends itself to interesting metaphorical use; if a non-baseball film were indeed to be so titled, the first thing we would try to do would be to see how that image functioned as a metaphor to help us place the meaning of the film.
Well, “passenger” is simply a term of British boating slang: “one of a crew who cannot pull his own weight,” or “a member of a racing crew whose weight retards the boat more than his power adds to its speed.” It’s also used by South African farmers to designate an animal in a herd that “contributes little or nothing to the functioning or the productivity of the group.”
The original title of Antonioni’s film was Profession: Reporter, and that is still how it is known in Europe. The two Davids of the film, David Robertson and David Locke, are doubles.
Robertson’s profession is revolutionist. Locke is a liberal, bourgeois reporter, whose sympathies, as with so many liberal, bourgeois reporters (or filmmakers or film critics or film professors), lie solidly with the guerrilla revolutionists but who just observe, write, talk, or make “objective” film or television documentaries.
Robertson’s a revolutionist, who is engagé, who participates, who acts, who is prepared to fight. Locke carries a Uher taperecorder, Robertson carries a Walther pistol.
From its political aspect, then, Antonioni’s film, The Passenger, is a political fable, a brief for one of Lenin’s key pronouncements that anyone who is for the Revolution must act and not just talk.
At the 1903 constitutional convention of what ended up the Russian Communist (Bolshevik) Party, there was a split among the delegates as to who should be allowed to be members of the Party.
One group, led by Martov, wanted to let in anyone who sympathized with the goals of the Party. The other group, led by Lenin, wanted to let in only those who submitted to Party discipline and who would act when the Party ordered them to.
After some questionable manoeuvring, Lenin’s group won a small majority. That’s how Lenin’s group got its name, the Bolsheviks, which in Russian means “the majority.”
Lobbying for this point of view, Lenin made his famous pronouncement:
“The root of the mistakes made by those who are supporting Martov’s formula lies in the fact that they not only ignore one of the main evils of our party life, but actually sanctify it. That evil lies in the fact that in an atmosphere of almost universal political discontent, in conditions where most of our activity is concentrated in narrow underground circles, it’s to the last degree difficult, almost impossible, for us to distinguish the talkers from the workers. We suffer from this evil cruelly, not only among the intelligentsia, but also the ranks of the working class, and Comrade Martov’s formula legitimates it.” (Italics added.)
From this time, the terms “hards” and “softs” came into vogue in Party circles. Antonioni’s The Passenger is a brief for the “hards’“.
Before making The Passenger Antonioni made a documentaryon China, for Italy’s television network RAI, that I have not seen but in which, I gather, he uses his camera as an observer, with a point of view, but subtly, and not very propagandistically, as he uses the camera in his interesting early documentary short Nettezza Urbana. (4) All hell broke loose among the Chinese, who had expected him to make a propaganda film about the Chinese New Man.
What the Chinese seem to have resented most was Antonioni’s claim to objectivity or what they thought was his claim. They called him a charlatan and a clown and tried to keep his film from being shown in Sweden, France, and Greece.(5)
Antonioni was terribly bitter about the accusations, almost unable in an interview to talk about them: “I’ve been accused of being a fascist! Of having fought with the fascist troops! I want the Chinese to know this: during the war [World War II], as a member of the Resistance, I was condemned to death. I was on the other side! I must say these things, once and for all, because it can’t go on that these people go around insulting me this way.”
Interviewed at the time of The Passenger about “objectivity” in reporting and filmmaking, he kept declaring against “the myth of objectivity” and maintaining that “pretending to be objective, you annul yourself. What sense would life have then?”
He said that the Nicholson character, as a journalist, sees reality from his own viewpoint, which to him seems objective; but in the film, he, Antonioni, as the director, played the role of “the journalist behind the journalist.” He added other dimensions to what the Nicholson character considered reality. In short, one might consider The Passenger as the Chinese argument against Antonioni’s China documentary.
Without having seen the documentary or having available the Chinese arguments against the film, I can’t presume to pass judgment on the matter, although it is not unheard of for a bourgeois, left-wing artist-sympathizer to get kicked on one side of his behind by some Communist functionary and then shortly to turn the other cheek. At any rate, this whole l’affaire Chung Kuo Cina casts important light on The Passenger and should not be ignored.
The events in The Passenger take place in 1973 (the film came out in 1975). Chad’s a former French protectorate given its independence in 1960. It is just south of Libya, about the size of France, Spain and Italy combined, with between four and five million people.(6) About half the population is Muslim, living mostly in the north; about five percent of the southern Blacks are Christian; the rest are of native, “primitive” African religion.
The Chad president, Tombalbaye, presumably the dictator in the film, soon set up a one-party dictatorship. A typically Communist National Liberation Front, called Frolinat, mostly Muslim Arabs of Northern Chad, backed by Libya and Egypt’s Nasser, began guerrilla operations against Tombalbaye.
He proceeded to call in French troops to fight the guerrillas. The French, under De Gaulle, wanted to maintain French influence in Africa, and felt, in line with the domino theory, that if Chad fell to the National Liberation Front, so would the rest of Africa. At first, there were just advisors, then helicopter units, finally a small army of French Foreign Legionnaires.
It all becomes very, very involved. Although the French never really relieved Tombalbaye of the Frolinat danger, he shortly threw out the French troops, changed all French names to native African, and began torturing and killing Black Christian missionaries. In 1975 Tombalbaye was himself killed in an Army coup; and now, in March 1979, it looks as though the National Liberation Front Communists have control of the country.
The point is that by the early 1970s Chad was, for France, like North Vietnam before Dien Bien Phu(7), and Algeria later, the situation portrayed by Gillo Pontecorvo in his masterly film The Battle of Algiers (1966). Liberal French journalists were calling for the return of French troops; and during 1973 (the year that the story of The Passenger takes place) a Chad political opponent of Tombalbaye was assassinated in Paris, causing a scandal.
All this as background to what simple-minded reviewers of The Passenger refer to in their story summary as Locke’s attempt to interview some guerrillas “in a new African country.”
Antonioni’s film is not objective in its attitude to these events. The “good guys” in the film are the German and Black rebels who meet Locke in Munich and, thinking that he is Robertson, pay him for the guns and thank him for his personal involvement in helping them. The “bad guys” in the film are the President dictator and his Black and White Teddy-boy thugs.
The good guys include Robertson, who’s described in the screenplay (by Antonioni, Mark Peploe, and Peter Wollen) as having deserted from the British Army in Kenya, and the executed rebel leader, whose execution constitutes such a powerful sequence in the film. (It’s my understanding that this sequence was in fact real, the real execution of a rebel leader, shot surreptitiously and smuggled out of the country.)
The “witch-doctor” sequence in Antonioni’s film, that puzzles some viewers, is simply understood once we know that the “witch-doctor” and the executed rebel leader are one and the same! The screenplay makes this quite explicit.
Locke’s questions, therefore, in his interview of him are meant to be both stupid and funny: “Isn’t it unusual for someone like you to have spent several years in France and Yugoslavia?” They’re the kind of questions that dumb American reporters used to ask Ho Chi Minh when he was a guerrilla chief.(8)
The film was originally an hour longer than it is. Antonioni had to cut it because the producers and distributors wanted a two-hour film. The published screenplay (it’s not the derived screenplay) has some dialogue that makes absolutely clear what we can only surmise from the truncated film.
A key sequence comes in the roundtable television discussion by his colleagues of Locke’s life, work, and spiritual discontent. The “bad guy” here is named Martin Knight (Ian Hendry), the producer-friend of the film. The “good guy” is a colleague named Harcourt.(9)
Knight says that Locke had a “kind of detachment,” a “talent for observation. He was always looking, always noticing.” He had a “fairness.” This went with his “objectivity,” with his “control on life. He was always controlled,” (controlled in the sense of unimpassioned).
These sound like good traits, do they not? But not so! This is to miss the point of the film. For it’s the meaning and brief of the film that these qualities in a reporter or in a man are bad qualities.
In rebuttal to Knight, Harcourt, Antonioni’s spokesman in the screenplay, goes on to say, “Though sometimes I think he [Locke] regretted it. Once in Beirut he told me he felt angry with himself, with his habit of observation. He said he thought that objectivity in a reporter was often just a style, a system of conventions. The public recognizes it, but it might have very little to do with the truth.”
The announcer then adds that there was certainly a “change” in Locke’s recent work. He seemed “more personally involved.” To which Harcourt, spotlighting for us Locke’s problem and the desperation that leads to his dropping out at the start of the film, adds: “I think he wanted to be involved but didn’t know how.”
With the help of the girl, played by Maria Schneider (she functions as sort of a guardian angel to Locke(10), he discovers how: If you don’t like the way the world is, if you find it so terrible, so horrifying, then stop just filming revolutions. Start making them.
Or, at the very least, get rid of the myth of filming “objectively,” showing both sides. Make a film like Eisenstein’s October (1928), that opts for the Revolution and portrays the villains as the monsters you feel they are.
It seems to me that all this is quite clear from the film as we have it, even without the screenplay dialogue, even if you don’t know about Chad, even if you don’t know about Chung Kuo Cina and its aftermath. All you really need to know is Lenin’s theory of the “hards” and the “softs,” of professional revolutionists versus dilettante bourgeois sympathizers. And this is both common knowledge and a crucial part of 19th and 20th century cultural history.
Finally, Gaudí. And here we must shift gears a bit, for we leave the purely political realm and enter, say, the religious realm of Antonioni’s film: the question of the meaning of life. That’s how Tolstoy liked to define religion, and I love him for it: The question of the meaning of life.
Before Antonioni’s film I had never heard of Antonio Gaudí, and have only had time to do a little homework on him. He was a marvellously interesting Spanish or, rather, Catalonian architect, a Master builder, who, reversing Ibsen’s Bygmester Solness (11), began by designing buildings for the rich bourgeois and ended by designing churches for God.
His early career, says one biographer, “was in marked contrast to his later anchorite existence. The sheer lavishness of his great town houses underscores the Franciscan simplicity of those last years when, hat-in-hand, he went about as a mendicant seeking alms for the works of the Expiatory Temple.”
As he found himself in the service of churches and religious orders, he set about systematically to learn about God and the meaning of life. He was born in 1852 and died in 1926. For the last twenty years of his life he lived in the Park Güell (we see the Palacio Güell in the film) and walked every day to his work at the Sagradia Familia church and to the church where he prayed.
It was while walking to church that he was one day hit by a trolley bus, and his death is as famous to Catalonians as his architecture. No one recognized him. He was just an anonymous old man who carried a Gospel book in his pocket and who was dying, just another “passenger” on his way to glory.
Cab drivers refused to carry the mortally injured man, thinking he was a beggar. He was finally taken to the hospital of the Holy Cross, where he had once said he would like to die. There he lay “in a tiny room with an iron bed, a night table and chair, with space for nothing more, a pious painting at his head for the three remaining days of his life.”
He’d once told Albert Schweitzer of his “mystical theory of the proportions prevailing in the lines formed by the architecture” of the kind of church he wished to build, “to reveal everywhere the symbols of the divine tri-unity. This cannot be expressed in either French, German, or English, so I explain it to you in Catalonian, and you will comprehend it, although you do not know the language.”
His funeral cortege was nearly a half-mile long. The story is told by an eyewitness that some of the mourners were not sure who the dead man was, but they thought he was a bullfighter.
In Antonioni’s film Locke’s death takes place in a hotel (the Hotel de la Gloria) near a bullring, where we hear a trumpet sound. (Earlier in the film Locke is shown in a Rococo German church, with the Stations of the Cross prominently displayed behind him.)
Antonioni has said that he didn’t show Locke’s death in the film because in any case “he was already dead.” That is, the reporter Locke. We are to assume that had Locke, instead of Robertson, died of a heart attack in that Chad hotel at the start of the film, his life would have had no meaning. And if the gunrunner Robertson had been killed by the assassin’s bullets in the Gloria Hotel at the end of the film, his life would have had a meaning. For, like Gaudí, to give your life meaning you have to involve yourself, immerse yourself utterly in what you believe, and not just be an observer.
When Locke asks the girl if she thinks Gaudí was crazy, she replies, “What do you think?” And he answers, “No, he wasn’t.”
1. The author discusses events in Chad later in this essay. The country obtained independence from France in 1960, but tension between the mainly Arab-Muslim north and the predominantly Christian and native-African south continued. In 1969 Muslim dissatisfaction with the first president, Ngarta Tombalbaye – a Christian southerner – developed into a guerrilla war. This, combined with a severe drought, undermined his rule. In 1975 he was murdered in a coup. A further coup in 1979 saw a Libyan-backed northerner, Goukouki Oueddei, seize power. Today another Libyan-backed president, Idriss Déby, rules Chad. Although Déby is its first elected president (from 1996), the country is notoriously corrupt. Most of its people continue to live in poverty as subsistence herders and farmers.
2. Screenwriter Mark Peploe, in his commentary included on the 2006 DVD of The Passenger, notes that issues of “objectivity” were engaging many progressive journalists and TV interviewers when the film was made.
3. Reportedly, Antonioni always intended that Schneider’s character drive Locke’s car, but learned at the last minute that Schneider couldn’t drive. Mark Peploe, on the 2006 DVD, says he definitely considers Locke the “passenger” of the film’s (American) title. (Its European title, Profession: Reporter, seems to contain a significant pun of its own.)
4. Better known as N.U. (Nettezza Urbana); Antonioni’s 1948 documentary about the street cleaners of Rome that work for the city’s Department of Sanitation.
5. Indeed they sought to have the film banned in all countries where they had diplomatic representation. In Australia, Chung Kuo Cina was shown at the 1974 Sydney Film Festival but had earlier been withdrawn from the Melbourne Film Festival.
6. In 2004 Chad’s population was 9,538,544.
7. Refers to the first Indochina War (1946-54) and its decisive engagement, the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, that saw the French defeated by the Communists.
8. Ho Chi Minh became President of North Vietnam, 1954-69.
9. Harcourt is cut from the released film (except that he may be glimpsed in the now-truncated television discussion).
10. In some ways she is like Judy (Kim Novak) in Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), to whom Scottie (James Stewart) remarks at one point, “These are the first happy days I’ve had in years.” Nonetheless, some commentators have detected an ambiguity, or at least a mystery, about the Schneider character.
11. Henrik Ibsen’s Bygmester Solness,known in English translation as The Master Builder – one of the great Norwegian playwright’s late plays, from his Symbolist period – was published in 1892.