Place Echoes Being: Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger

To leave architecture out of a conversation about Michelangelo Antonioni’s films would be like discussing Alfred Hitchcock’s form without acknowledging suspense. These frameworks are what govern the characters’ behavior and psychological state, forming a narrative through which we can see their personal worlds. For Antonioni, the setting and the background becomes the subject, or perhaps more accurately, the character that shapes the world of his films and gives the audience insight into the deeper meaning of Antonioni’s films. The Passenger (1975), starring Jack Nicholson and Maria Schneider, is the first of Antonioni’s films to take place in multiple countries. Africa, England, Germany, and Spain are the subjects here, illuminated to reflect questions of mortality and the loss of individuation with the need to overcome oneself.


The observational camera allows characters to enter frame and dissolve or disappear so that the last frame holds on an empty space. At the same time, the camera seamlessly crosses between locations—from his past life in London to his filmed documentary footage and his present travels. The viewer becomes ‘a passenger’ in the surrealistic journey of Nicholson’s character, David Locke. Locke is a respected reporter known for his ‘objective views’ as he creates media related film documentaries, presently working on capturing post-colonial Africa. He hopes to come in contact with guerrilla fighters in Northern Africa oppressed by the current civil war, drawn to the same freedom they are fighting for. In the revolutionaries’ ‘tangible’ war, the enemy can be defeated, paradoxical to Locke’s internal battle against the intolerable monotonies of reality.

Internally, Locke is creeping on despair. Tired of being unable to rid himself of old habits, he begins his mission, already awaiting its end. Within the first ten minutes, the golden-pink sand of the Sahara swallows the tires of his light blue Land Rover in its vastness. As Locke falls to his knees, he stretches his arms as wide as the landscape, and yells, “I don’t care!” He surrenders his identity and his reality, finding autonomy and strength through resignation.

The camera moves from a medium side shot, then pans right to his gaze of never-ending sand and sky—nothingness. The notion for individual transcendence, “Not transcendence in the philosophical sense but rather as the ego’s passage beyond the limits of the self, its merging with, or dying into, the larger world, the ‘other’ that lies beyond the ego.” [1] Locke is not interested in passively participating in the commonplace world, which brings him to both boundless landscapes which he can not overcome and crowded, suffocating architecture of large cities.

The landscape–the space around him–becomes a direct reflection of this internal state. Locke’s hotel in Chad supports his feeling of insignificance by hinting at primitivism—the basic need for water parallel to interior sky blue walls and sand colored doors. Depleted, Locke finds a dead man in the adjacent room by the name of Robertson. He sits on the bed next to him, in shadow, discovering this chance to gain a new identity, to live out a ‘new’ destiny just by borrowing Robertson’s passport and planner. The ceiling fan blows above–time passing. Locke fades into the blue walls as he puts on Robertson’s blue coat.

Leaving behind his camera, tape recorder, and luggage, Locke is one step closer to freedom by escaping himself. Antonioni points to the fact that modern machinery and electronics of the present cannot negate the struggles of the past (history), which are reoccurring. Man is bound by his belongings—without them he has no identity to others or to himself, but with them he is boxed into an identity that does not fully encompass the vastness of his true self.

Following Robertson’s schedule, he finds himself in a new setting contrasted by sharp red and white architecture of the Munich Airport. Papers in a luggage locker that resemble a black hole show that Robertson was an arms dealer on behalf of a terrorist group. The next meeting is with gunrunners in Barcelona, where a majority of the film is located.

Antonioni frequently uses bars or birdcages–literal and metaphorical–emanating the restrictions of mankind that modernity tends to mask: history repeating itself, unable to break out of natural or cultural boundaries, or even how the physical architecture of buildings and streets create social habits limiting us to the space we can use. In a scene where Locke rides in a cable car over the port of Barcelona, he emerges his upper body out of the window. In the next frame, he is entirely surrounded by blue water. He flaps his arms like wings, feeling the unbounded freshness of his ‘new self’ if only for a moment. The next shot cuts to a low angle inside the Umbraculo located in Parc de la Ciutadella; we are deceived by the tall, vibrant, green palm trees and natural light which are entrapped under a roof. Panning down, children run around and Locke sits on a bench, arms stretching, looking up. The sites and architecture are deliberate but it is only through the sequences–the juxtaposition of characters within limited frames versus immense, natural landscapes–that visually express inner mentality, which words cannot.

In Barcelona, Locke’s destiny as Robertson becomes threatening and forces him to go on the run. Followed by his past and government officials, he unknowingly hides in a famous Gaudi building, Palau Guell, where he meets the Girl (Maria Schneider). Also a lost soul, she wears floral attire that blends in with nature while, ironically, studying manmade architecture. This inconsistency is at the center of both her and Locke’s discontent and creates the same longing for freedom that Locke is destined for. Palau Guell reflects the immediate anguish of Locke by its dark, neo-Gothic essence, medieval details, and heavy textures of stone and wood. A birdcage hangs over a sleeping guard while the bodies move through a grander cage: the mansion itself. The interior is an imprisonment of self: the dim light peaking through the slotted lateral windows gives little solace and instead of bringing in the outside world, only demonstrates to Locke how far removed one is from it, thus forcing him to exit the building in haste. (24).gif

Naturally, his mentality craves the opposite of Palau Guell and brings him to the fantasy-like rooftop landscape of Gaudi’s Casa Mila. Wide shots of abstract sculptured chimneys form a deep horizon, echoing desert dunes with its dips and line curvature. This ‘imaginary’ world indeed projects Gaudi’s influence of the desert from his trip to Africa—the unleveled, mountainous rocks against sky blue and earth tones. The structure of Casa Mila is based in natural forms with its wave-like stair walkways accented with serpentine curved iron rails, however designed to be a functional apartment complex that provides shelter and seclusion from the exterior world, yet not fully closed off from it. Also mimicking curves of the human body, the work of Gaudi is an attempt to connect nature with manmade structures. Panning down, a couple fights below on a balcony, grounding us in a reality of incommunicability.

He sees the Girl here and when they find each other, they sit in a low shot with a background of triangular, monochrome tiles extending to the sky—hopefulness. This setting establishes a harmonious balance which Locke and the Girl share, at a moment where their relationship progresses. While the two find comfort in each other, The Passenger differs from earlier Antonioni films whereas here, neither relies on each other for ‘salvation.’ The Girl enjoys her solitude although she has become a passenger in Locke’s convertible, while his intent is to find ‘beyond.’ In Gilles Deleuze’s Cinema 2: The Time-Image, he analyzes the movement of body alongside the brain, maintaining that attitude is a result of thoughts; a concept that Antonioni visualizes through space and architecture.

They travel south further into rural Spain until trees become fewer, leaving only highway and dusty, desolate land. The sound of the sea grows louder as they reach the Hotel De La Inglesia, almost as if the closer one gets to civilization the more apparent it is how far we are from nature. The camera shows us the architecture of the hard, geometric lines of minimal white buildings spread out, then finally cuts to Locke and the Girl juxtaposed against a background of the empty land. Although a few people wander about, the buildings feel abandoned—again calling to mind a time in the past, present and maybe even future. Tired, Locke keeps moving to escape the past and present events in part of the Girl’s interest to not give up—she is balanced and adaptable in nature in contrast to his low spirits.

They are seen in several scenes after eating in cafes overly full of plush, green vegetation, yet the dialogue and body only support Locke’s weariness and admission that he lives one life—headed towards death. Here it appears that Antonioni is highlighting how the immortality of nature makes one realize their own mortality. To Deleuze, cinema requires this interaction between abstract and concreteness. On a road chase, their convertible breaks down in the middle of the earthy, empty land—a second instance where modern machinery fails. (23).gif

Locke needs to proceed on his own, but arranges to meet the Girl at Hotel De La Gloria for the final scene and destination. By this time, he checks in with nothing other than his sunglasses, shielding him from the sunlight; he sits on the curb in front of a textured white wall, with one window covered by green blinds and a green hanging plant to the left. He squashes an innocent bug, smearing its blood on the white wall. Italian novelist Alberto Moravia wrote a piece in 1961, discussing how Antonioni’s visual world is static, “composed of objects bound together by no rationally perceptible links. For these reasons, the contemplation of a wall carries more weight than a carefully worked out dramatic action…oppressed by a nameless, formless anguish.” [2]  

Locke lays face up—glasses off, fully aware, open to the natural world—and transcends reality. Meanwhile, the camera observes everyday life in the plaza through the gated window of his hotel room. Known for its seven minute tracking shot, the camera escapes through the bars out into the action of all those in search of Locke arriving at the hotel. With the sound of the ocean in the background, the arena is composed of a dirt ground and analogous towering, aged stonewall. Again we see the desolate, bleak emptiness of the land, like the desert, surrounding Hotel De La Gloria, which mirrors that interior void in Locke. A reddened, blue dusk overtakes the sky as the ordinary world continues in its tragic habits that one must either adapt or conform to. At the corner of the hotel entrance, a white light emanates from within.  

[1] William Arrowsmith, Antonioni: The Poet of Images (New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 1995), 148.

[2] Alberto Moravia, “A New Feeling for Reality,” L’espresso Magazine, (Rome: Feb. 1961).