Michelangelo Antonioni's 'The Passenger' 


Now we can lie on the sand and mull over an answer. Did Will Douglas’ ‘Cinema in English’ season end in a bang or a whimper? By programming ‘The Passenger’ (‘Profession Reporter’ in its Italian version) he told the relentless Salento summer to hold on a moment and give film buffs a chance to exchange a few more sharp words before taking to the shade.

Director Michelangelo Antonioni (1912-2007)) is hardly new to controversy. Greying cinephiles have not forgotten the verbal warfare of the 1960s and 70s. Francois Truffaut was brief:

“Antonioni is the only important director I have nothing good to say about. He bores me; he’s so solemn and humorless.”

 

To which the Italian replied with another elliptical excursion into the unease of the twentieth century upper-classes, decorated with the distraught faces of Monica Vitti, Jeanne Moreau or Marcello Mastroianni, all unforgettable. It was deeply felt. Looked back half a century later it’s clearer what Antonioni was up to. In the midst of Italy’s postwar boom, he was registering the dismay of a country abruptly brought face to face with modernity.

Ingmar Bergman’s criticism of Antonioni came down to workmanship and an objection to his way of telling a story:

“[Antonioni] never properly learnt his craft. He's an aesthete. If, for example, he needs a certain kind of road for ‘The Red Desert’, then he gets the houses repainted on the damned street. That is the attitude of an aesthete. He took great care over a single shot, but didn't understand that a film is a rhythmic stream of images, a living, moving process; for him, on the contrary, it was such a shot, then another shot, then yet another. So, sure, there are some brilliant bits in his films... [but] I can't understand why Antonioni is held in such high esteem.”

One can almost imagine that Bergman like ourselves had just seen ‘The Passenger’ (1975). It ends with a sensational tracking shot that lasts seven whole minutes. From a hotel room we watch the town square, the camera rotating 180 degrees. For the attentive, as the take tracks back to the interior of the hotel room, the dangling loose ends of the story are tied up in a delicate bow. Years later Jack Nicholson, star of ‘The Passenger’, recalled that Antonioni actually built the entire hotel to obtain the shot.

Bang or whimper, then? It really doesn’t matter. What’s important is that movies more than any other medium draw a personal reaction from us. We are angry, content, grumbling or defensive. One way or another, expressed in monosyllabic grunts or highfalutin prose, we are caught up in them. It remains to be seen what Will Douglas will come up with to provoke us in the autumn.


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Peter Byrne

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