Gaudi's famous apartment building, Casa Mila is at it's whimsical best in this film which explores identity, chance and choice. Director Michelangelo Antonioni is renown for his use of architectural landscapes and structural composition so it is no surprise that such a cinematic building would feature in one of his films.
The Passenger stars Jack Nicholson, portraying a grisled worldweary journalist, David Locke, who is sick of himself and of his situation. After chancing upon an opportunity to assume the identity of another hotel guest (whom he discovers dead) he makes a split decision to walk away from his life. Too easy? Quite. Filling in his new identity, Locke goes about keeping the dead mans appointments and duly discovers that he has become an arms dealer.
The schedule takes him to Barcelona and he finds himself wandering around the Casa Mila (also known as La Pedrera, “The Quarry”), in pursuit of an attractive young woman (played by Maria Schneider) whom he hopes can assist him. This extraordinary building with it’s organic limestone facade and gothic detailing provides an eerie background to the scenes which follow where Locke begins to grapple with the implications of what he has done. Filmed before its major facelift in the early 1990’s, the building wears 60 years of grimy city fallout. It’s dark menacing complexion, at once ancient and alien, creates a surreal presence and serves as an ominous warning - this is not only unfamiliar territory but very dangerous ground.
A long sequence is captured on the undulating roof of the building where the two navigate to a spot where they can sit and chat. The building’s unusual proportions means that while they are up on the roof we inadvertently witness a domestic argument on a balcony below. This odd, unnerving interjection, which bears no relevance to the rest of the story, is typical of Antonioni’s direction. Famously layered with unanswered questions, his films have in common a rhetorical quality – asking viewers to reflect on the subject matter long after they have left the cinema.
Casa Mila’s uniqueness underlines the films concepts of individuality and character. This is identity theft before the cyber age, and it is interesting to think about what that meant in 1975. In some ways stealing someone else life at that time was easier to pull off (a matter of replacing a photograph in a passport) but in many ways also much harder, with less opportunity to manipulate evidence and a society that is more reliant on personal connections and face to face meetings than we are used to today. So which is more reliable? Are we now too dependent on technology to record who we are? 30 years later The Passenger is still posing questions to ponder.