The first twelve minutes of Antonioni’s 1975 film The Passenger may strike viewers as boring, mysterious, and unnecessary. The opening scenes take place in and around an isolated African desert village, in a landscape filled with heat and blowing pink sand, baking under a relentless sun. Though at first these scenes may seem completely gratuitous when considered in the context of the entire film, they lead the viewer to identify with the protagonist, who we later learn is named Locke, and then to witness his professional and existential crisis, and finally the death of his illusions about himself. The rest of the film explores what happens when he begins searching, leaving behind his dream self with his picture on Robinson’s passport. It is crucial, then, for the death of his dream self at the beginning to be effective in order to facilitate the remainder of the film.
As the credits begin, the camera pans left to the jeep coming out of an alley into our field of vision; the man gets out and we faintly hear him asking directions in English and French. He is clearly searching. We learn later that he is a reporter, and his behavior throughout the opening scenes describes his egotistical devotion to his profession. He follows every possible lead, through all his confusion, only to end up beside his jeep in the middle of the desert, stuck and impotent in the face of the elements. He follows each of his guides to the end of the road, and is left seeing only his inadequacy, not the things he imagines and sees in his mind.
A boy, the first guide, runs along beside the jeep, leading the man to a small interior, the cool darkness contrasting with the bright light outside, still visible through the open door. Several natives leave when the man comes in, but one stays seated in front of him and motions for a cigarette. After the man lights it, they move outside, watched by a second native. We first see the jeep traveling, then it parks in a small clearing; the man gets out and walks across to a seated African, the same in the shop.
The man wears sunglasses the whole time, has his shirt open and tied at the waist, with the exposed skin tanned and sunburned, in contrast to the cool darkness of the natives’ skin, with their flowing, easy clothes. Throughout these sequences the man is sweaty and uncomfortable, stumbling as he climbs rocks and swearing when he loses his third guide. The bumping jeep also presents contrasting motion as it roars along behind the native woman swaying coolly and calmly as she walks.
The interaction of the man with the boy in the striped shirt is entirely one-sided. He says, “Do you speak English? Vous parlons Francais?” Then a moment later, “Which way?” and when the boy gestures, says, “Left, left.” The boy communicates only with hand signals until a certain point when they are driving through the desert; then he leans forward, and finally speaks, saying quickly and quietly “Stop, stop!” The man is trying to engage the boy on his own terms, is frustrated by his lack of success, and the boy finally speaks only to leave him. The boy mutters something inaudible as he moves away, and the man remonstrates, “Hey, where you going?” but the boy leaves anyway.
Wind blows throughout these scenes, and provides a backdrop for the strictly diegetic sound used throughout. The indistinct voices of adults, cries of children, and animal noises predominate in sequences within the village. A rooster crows at intervals. The jeep is another main source of noise: it hums or roars, depending on the scene, and rattles constantly. Several times we hear the door slam and the engine start at the various stops the man makes.
The man finally breaks down while digging his jeep out of loose sand. He first tries digging at a couple of the wheels, then bangs his shovel against the side of the jeep in frustration. He swears under his breath, “Son of a bitch,” and finally calls out, “Alright! I don’t care!” He begins to weeping, and falls back against the jeep, exhausted. The camera then moves away from the man for a long pan across the desert, slowly covering pinkish dunes, blue sky, and a few rocks.
Throughout these sequences nothing much happens, but our curiosity is aroused by the actions of the natives and the man’s determined efforts to get somewhere. Ultimately, Antonioni’s technique keeps these scenes from becoming boring, even if his style is grating for some. The scenes are permeated throughout with a “documentary” feel that both makes us feel uncomfortably close to the subject, as if we were walking around with a video camera, and also distanced from a narrative perspective, since the action is not being narrated by a voice-over or other technique through a series of unexplained events (as we normally would be in a documentary) but leaves us on our own to piece things together.
Antonioni uses one shot sequence in particular that emphasizes this disorientation aimed at the viewer. The sequence begins when the boy in the yellow shirt, his first guide, leads him to the interior of what seems a kind of shop. We see him in the shop, the native asks for a cigarette, Locke gives him one and lights it, then the native leaves and subtly gestures Locke to follow him. The next shot we see is of the jeep, bumbling through the village under the merciless sun, and it stops in front of a native man seated cross legged by a wall. Locke gets out of the jeep and goes over to him, and though he looks similar, we assume this is a different man, who also asks for a cigarette, but then does nothing. Locke looks back toward the jeep (outside our field of vision) and seems surprised. Then the camera moves back to show a native boy seated in the passenger side of the jeep, staring straight ahead. Locke walks back to the truck, and we are confused along with him, since the man seated with the cigarette is now forgotten.
Throughout the opening it’s hard to tell what’s going on, who is supposed to be important and who is not, who is threatening and who is not; finally, when he breaks down at the end of the initial twelve minutes, it is the landscape itself that is threatening. The opening sequences are more like scenes depicted that just happened; the meaning or “moral” is initially quite opaque. If Antonioni wanted to show a day in the life a reporter in the desert, and set up a mystery in reverse, he did an excellent job. We are drawn in, we want some kind of control over the events, and are frustrated or intrigued by this introduction into wanting to get some kind of tradition narrative, some story of good or bad. In the end, though we hate being imposed with “morals,” at their lack we crave some kind of tidy conclusion and labels for the characters. We want them all to fit nicely into easily recognized prototypes.
The architecture student, though she comes in later in the film, is an example of this. She is a steadying influence on Locke, challenging him to face his life, when one might assume a student to be, on the contrary, a distracting element from the real problems of everyday life. The way she does it, too, is disturbing. She advocates Locke’s exploration of his problems, sticking with the schedule he inherited along with his new identity, as the “right” thing to do, not necessarily morally but experientially. She is proposing something new to Locke, that he not go through life on what he can get away with but on what he is given, exploring and pursuing that to the full. “Okay,” we could imagine her saying, “You’ve gotten away with it. So now do it as far as it goes. If you ditch it now, nothing will happen. You’ll just have the same thing to face later in a different form.”
The film, through the setup of the initial twelve minutes, leads us through the adventure and struggle of man to assert his own authority over his life, and his own identity. Locke, in his desire to act with protagonism, falls short when he follows his illusions, which are what he wants to see of reality rather than all there is actually present. Later sequences in the film, flashbacks to events occurring prior to the opening, can be helpful in illuminating its apparent mysteriousness. For example, in the sequence when the witch doctor turns the camera around to face Locke, telling him that only a dialogue, not an interrogative monologue, is authentic documentary. What Locke has hitherto been pursuing is only his own idea of documentation, his own illusions about his profession.
The predominance of heat and light contrasts with the cool dark interiors and shadows in the village. The ability to exist and function effectively and comfortably is part of acceptance and coherence with your environment. In these sequences we see clearly that the natives can and he can’t. He is exiled, alienated from his environment. Even his plaid shirt symbolizes this – all the natives wear solids, the women colors, the men mostly white, and the children t-shirts and pants. He is wearing all the right clothes, from an illusory perspective, the perspective of what one would think about a documentary photographer in the middle of a desert: khaki pants with pockets, explorer hat; but they are the Western stereotypical gear and won’t help him in the midst of a foreign environment. Locke tries to bribe (with cigarettes) and talk his way through, struggling by sheer physical effort to make his illusions fact; but in the end all his efforts are fruitless – even his shovel is ineffective. The environment imposes itself inexorably on man, with the natives as a part of the environment. Everything – the heat, the natives, the difficult landscape, the buzzing insects, but mainly the heat – everything is conspiring to stop him from his struggle to reach his objective. All these things comprise what is “other,” apart from Locke’s illusions. When he gives up, he is giving up on the documentary, finding information, and his profession as a reporter – all the things that comprise his ideas, his own construct of reality.
This death of illusion is a death of self, indicated as he exchanges identities with the dead man immediately after the twelve-minute opening scenes in the desert. He needs to be that dead man living because he killed his life, comprised of illusions, and gave it to the dead man when he placed Robinson’s photo on his own passport. When he places his photo on Robinson’s passport, he is embracing all that is “other.” Robinson, like the natives and the elements, is also “other” for Locke, because he doesn’t know who Robinson really is or what he does. This can only occur because he “died” back in the desert next to his jeep, he finally submitted himself to the elements, the otherness that confronted him. Subsequently, this death allows him to explore what is “other,” reality apart from his own illusions, during the rest of the film.