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The Passenger

The Passenger

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This year British screenwriter and director Mark Peploe is the jury president for the Pardi di domani competition.

Born in 1943, Mark Peploe began his career as a screenwriter in 1972 with the magnificent The Pied Piper by Jacques Demy (co-written with Demy and Andrew Birkin), a British film produced by David Puttnam, shot in Germany and starring the singer Donovan. Three years later he contributed to the script for René Clément’s thriller La Baby Sitter, which was filmed in Italy and featured a young Maria Schneider.

And that same year saw Peploe establish his reputation with the story and script for one of the finest films in film history, The Passenger that we are showing again at Locarno.
After four films starring Monica Vitti, Michelangelo Antonioni left Italy and foresook his female protagonists to chart the metaphysical wanderings of male archetypes impelled by a vague desire for escape, a morbid drive that leads to split personality, solitude, disappearance, death.

The slightly hackneyed (but on the nail!) theme of weak men and heroic women of Antonioni’s black and white films was abandoned in favour of political and aesthetic reflections on the contemporary world and the uncomfortable, if not unbearable, position men is called to play in it. Blow Up (1967) is a detective story that remains unresolved, a brilliant investigation of art and reality, in which the enlargement of a photograph reveals and then obscures evidence of a murder.

After this critical and commercial success, Antonioni chose to radicalise his approach as an artist and traveller. He embarked on a series of adventures as cerebral as they were geographical, and unusual experiments in which stunning technical innovations (the final explosion in Zabriskie Point (1970), the penultimate 360° degree shots in The Passenger (1974) were accompanied by an increasing sense of disillusion.

Zabriskie Point plays variations on North by Northwest, and Antonioni’s work has a strange and fascinating relationship with that of Hitchcock, which could well be described as mirroring that between modern cinema and classic film.

This revision of the conventions of the detective film continued in his next film, written by Peploe and based on his own experience at the time: the desire to chuck everything, including and especially his wife.

The Passenger marked Antonioni’s encounter with Jack Nicholson, an actor known for hamminess but who delivers here a fascinating demonstration of under-acting, perfectly in synch with the Italian filmmaker’s objectives and working methods.

An absolute masterpiece, the culmination of years of thought and travel, The Passenger is also most Antonioni’s most luminous film, even if it is haunted by death from start to end. The reporter’s plan to exchange identity, as he is followed from Africa to Europe both by killers and his wife’s curiosity, is doomed to failure.

The experience is absurd, suicidal, but also playful, sensual (his brief encounter with the young woman played by Maria Schneider). For a brief moment the reporter manages to “become himself” and in escaping from one life to another to taste real freedom and discover, as Alberto Moravia noted about the film, that man only exists outside society.

After this successful collaboration with Antonioni, Mark Peploe was to write his biggest films with another great Italian director, Bernardo Bertolucci: The Last Emperor, (also shown at Locarno, and which won Mark Peploe an Oscar in 1988), The Sheltering Sky (1990, an adaptation of the Paul Bowles’ novel) and Little Buddha co-scripted with Rudy Wurlitzer in 1993.

Mark Peploe has also written and directed two films: Afraid of the Dark (1991) a fascinating thriller about blindness that has a touch of Antonioni to it, and Victory in 1996, an adaptation of the Joseph Conrad novel.

Olivier Père
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