Antonioni’s Amazing Grace
I can’t remember ever being as bored in a movie theater as I was at an Antonioni film, Red Desert. It was my first week living on the University of Colorado campus in Boulder. I had no friends in town and not a lot of money, and just about the only thing doing for friendless paupers was the International Film Series, admission to which was probably three or four bucks at the time. And the movie was Red Desert.
I just went and read the IMDb plot summary, and damned if I could look at that paragraph out of context and say, “Oh yeah, I saw that movie.” But I remember the colors, the environments, the occasionally moving camera, and the people often small in the frame. And of course I remember Monica Vitti. So Antonioni was talking to me effectively, although I didn’t understand that through my waking slumber at the time.
Anyway, I made my piece with Antonioni when I checked out Blowup, which fascinated me. I guess I dug the swinging-London setting, but the existential message — what’s real? What exists? And how do you know? — was very clear. I’ve been reluctant, since then, to check out the hard stuff: La Notte, L’avventura.
But The Passenger, which to some degree builds on themes he explored in Blowup, is really something. Antonioni found a powerful foil in Jack Nicholson, a distinctive and irrepressible personality rendered here as a man searching for himself — running away from his life and his wife and finding some semblance of a true self, perhaps, in a lover (an almost completely blank Maria Schneider) so anonymous that she’s credited only as “The Girl.” The readymade thriller set-up (Nicholson is an ennui-addled journalist who swaps passports with a dead acquaintance and quickly finds he’s fallen in with arms dealers) is a red herring. The narrative nods toward politics — Nicholson-as-reporter is unwilling to ask tough questions of dictators, but Nicholson-as-gunrunner may be enabling the rebels who challenge their tyranny — but in Antonioni’s hands it’s little more than a thoughtful framework for a deliberately paced meditation on identity lost and found. (“What the fuck are you doing here with me?” he asks her. “Which me?” she responds.)
Sure, it’s obstinately slow, but what an eye this man has. Every frame is fascinating. There’s a nice sequence that has flashback scenes occupying the same take with present-tense bookends, shooting backward and forward in time (and even, for a moment, occupying both present and future simultaneously, thanks to nice, disorienting sound work and the excuse of a tape recorder) without a cut. Antonioni practices portraiture not just of the actors, but of the buildings and landscapes they inhabit. (If it were nothing else, The Passenger would be a fine, unconventional road movie.)
There’s something inevitably despairing about the story Nicholson tells Schneider in the film’s penultimate scene. In his tale, a blind man regains his site but finds the world as it really appears impossibly, depressingly wanting. That leads into a long, unforgettable shot that moves deliberately and with a great, poignant physicality out a hotel room, through a barred window, and out into a plaza where it pans, slowly, 180 degrees as it takes in the film’s final, choreographed series of events in real time. (It’s the kind of shot that CG jockeys like David Fincher have taken to imitating, at high speed and at great expense, in post, where a camera can shoot right through the handle on a coffeepot without the propmaster breaking a sweat.) The sense I have while that shot’s happening is that, perhaps, a soul is being set free, casting a last look backward before submitting to the oblivion of mortal impermanence. It’s one of the great endings in cinema history — few filmmakers can match what Antonioni achieves here.
Guess I’ll be cueing up L’avventura next.