It starts very well, with Jacek Borkowski as Forman, a harassed businessman caught in a morning traffic jam in pouring rain and realizing he’s forgotten his 10th wedding anniversary. When his car breaks down, he shelters in the crowded passageway entrance to an elegant art deco mall that includes shops, a cinema and a restaurant.
As he waits, a man who looks very much like him dashes from the passageway into the road and is fatally hit by a car.
A little girl beckons Forman into the mall, and he follows her into what proves to be a nightmare world from which there appears to be no escape. The mall is a strange, sinister place, inhabited by weird people. But at first Forman doesn’t notice the unreality. He wanders into stores, a bar, a pool hall, having increasingly strange encounters along the way. He’s tricked into giving the mall’s concierge his credit cards and identity papers in exchange for a key that is supposed to fit every door in the place, and without his papers he’s unable to leave, trapped in this underground world.
One of his encounters is with Lukasek (Zdenek Maryska), an old friend and rival for the affections of Forman’s wife whom Forman thought was dead. Forman also meets the elderly man who guards the mall’s boiler room, and whose young girlfriend never wears clothes. A film crew seems to be shooting everything that happens in the mall, and when at one stage Forman goes to the cinema, he sees himself on the screen. He buys a present for his wife and the storekeeper agrees to gift-wrap it, but every time Forman returns to her shop to pick up his package he finds it closed.
Most of all, the trapped Forman becomes intrigued by Betty (Malgorzata Kozuchowska), a beautiful flower-seller who has sex with men in a public toilet, creating such tremors in the process that tiles and mirrors crack and fall; her partners wind up dead, and are carted off by a couple of laconic ambulance men who talk endlessly about recipes for gourmet meals.
Visually and aurally, the film is an impressive piece of work; production design and photography are aces, and there’s a particularly rich and evocative soundtrack.
But, after a while, Forman’s predicament becomes monotonous, and Herz isn’t able, in the end, to endow his protagonist’s plight with the nightmarish feeling it crucially requires. Though the ending is satisfactory, it is completely unsurprising given all that has preceded it.
“Passage” is pic’s original Czech title.