Nothing illustrates how dogged Michelangelo Antonioni fans can be than how, for the past few years, they have been willing to shell out more than $100 to purchase the only available DVD edition of his 1975 masterpiece, “The Passenger,” from Japan. The reasons why the film, starring Jack Nicholson as a TV journalist covering African civil wars who switches identities with a dead gun-runner in Chad, had become so expensively obscure are much too complex to detail here, but saying that no Antonioni film has been in greater demand for re-release is an extreme understatement.
Sony Pictures Classics finally secured the vid rights a bit more than a year ago from the film’s owner, which wasn’t, as many might assume, MGM, which had produced and released the film. For many years, the film’s actual owner has been Proteus Films, Nicholson’s own shingle, which has been very protective of “The Passenger.”
The long wait was worth it: This DVD contains two separate commentary tracks (one with Nicholson, who’s never recorded a commentary before), a fine, carefully crafted transfer that’s better than the Japanese edition, plus a hilariously tacky MGM trailer that misspells Antonioni’s name twice. A film of this stature surely cries out for an accompanying booklet, however.
Nicholson clearly adores the director, and his occasionally rambling commentary is more like a relaxed sit on the back porch than a thought-out reflection of what it was to work on an extremely challenging project.
“This was the biggest adventure I’ve had in my life,” he observes, and many of his comments suggest why.
He begins anecdotes, and then may not quite finish them, or leave them hanging only to resume them later when the listener has long forgotten about them. This is a rare chance to hear Nicholson au naturel, chatting away. And he never once mentions that he owns the movie.
Scribe Mark Peploe’s, track is less quirky but vastly more informative, journo Aurora Irvine occasionally adds brief questions and insights. Peploe helpfully notes the roughly five minutes’ worth of re-installed scenes and shots originally (and pointlessly) deleted for the U.S. release.
But more than background, Peploe injects a real understanding of Antonioni’s extraordinarily sophisticated filmmaking, from his genius for composition and editing, to his skills with new technologies. He also explains how the film’s much-storied penultimate seven-minute shot was made.
This means, of course, watching “The Passenger” at least twice. But if any film bears up under repeated viewings, it is this elegant, existential mystery, a summation of Antonioni’s art, whose power has only grown over 30 years.