As The Passenger

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how powerfully the European filmmakers mastered quiescence. I was pretty sure my assertion was correct, but it’d been at least a few months since I’d watched a European classic on a big screen.

Ah, but I was right. I just saw Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger (1975) and then walked back into midtown NYC to find it, and myself, transformed by the experience. Restored, even.

It took a moment or two to surrender to Antonioni’s pacing, but once I did there was nowhere else I would have preferred to have been for two hours of a late Thursday afternoon. A thirtiesh Jack Nicholson — still coltish, and only depraved enough to film a movie with an Italian director (rather than pant after Hollywood’s prepubescent daughters) — plays a TV international journalist who has had it with his job, his wife, his life, really. When a stranger dies in an African hotel room next to his, he swaps their passport pictures and takes off with the dead man’s identity, leaving the corpse behind to be pronounced his own. Only, as he discovers while he spins through Europe and Africa with tiger-eyed Maria Schneider, the legacies of both men prove too powerful to entirely evade.

That’s the storyline, and it’s the sort that would come equipped with an action-jackson edit and soundtrack had it been shot today. Instead it drifts along with nothing to fill your ears for minutes at a time but the crunch of gravel; the hiss of dust billowing up to defy an empty sky; the lonely, swelling murmur of passersby’s conversations. Views from the trunk of a car linger a few seconds after a slammed door is all that’s left to look at. The camera trails after each car whooshing by a couple lunching in a roadside cafe in an indolent nod to the distractions of modernity. All to train you for the clicking heels of destiny approaching, as the film whittles down to pure silence and a room with a (fatalistic) view.

It is a movie whose dialogue is spare enough that you take heed of the few words actually exchanged. Especially Nicholson’s proclamation that “There are coincidences everywhere.” As he uttered it, in fact, the woman in front of me craned toward her male companion in a way that gave me a start of recognition. It was a woman, I suddenly realized, whom I’d once known quite well.

When the lights came up, they were both gone. I darted out to catch them in the screening room’s hallway but only two men chattering into cells stood there, their silhouettes cast into perspective by a glittering, steely Manhattan sky. For a second, I thought I’d mistook real life for another scene in the movie but then I knew it’d been no mistake. It was all of a piece; she had dipped in and out of plain view the way Nicholson’s character had on screen. The movie, made 30 years ago, had reached into my life and made someone visible again for a second who had disappeared years ago.

But not me: I was wonderfully invisible.

Downstairs on 55th street I slipped into the noisy quiet of the New York City throng, clicking east in my silver-toed boots and popping chocolate-covered apricots from a brown paper bag in my pocket. Listening close. For three blocks still I was just an extra passenger.

"All, everything I understand, I understand only because I love."
― Leo Tolstoy