Character Analysis: The Passenger

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  • Topic: Film genres, Michelangelo Antonioni, Film genre
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Essay Question: Discuss The Passenger in terms of David Bordwell’s analysis of the elements that characterise art cinema.

Cherish Perez de Tagle (12339949)
European Cinema Since 1945
Module Code: 2FLM7H9
Ian Green
January 10, 2011
Bordwell (1979) criticizes the idea that art cinema exists as an offshoot of classic narrative cinema. He argues that it is a way of storytelling in its own right. According to him, art cinema has a set of formal conventions relating to modes of production/consumption as well as having a discrete film practice and particular viewing conventions. Art cinema is likewise situated within the historical existence of film practice. In this essay I will discuss how Antonioni’s The Passenger (1975) can be classed as an art film according to the elements that characterise art cinema as put forth by Bordwell. Historically speaking, the Passenger was made in 1975, post World War II, one of the conditions Bordwell states as being a contributor to the emergence of art cinema. Changes to the court’s statutes regarding film, the wane of the dominance of Hollywood cinema, together with an increase in international commerce, made the production of films for an international audience desirable. Correspondingly, branching out into foreign markets opened up a niche for co-productions. The Passenger was likewise an Italian-French-Spanish co-production with American star Jack Nicholson, shot on location in Spain, Germany, North Africa, and the UK. Bordwell argues that whilst themes may differ across the broad range of films classified as art cinema, the functions of these themes within the individual films are in fact consistent and make use of certain narrative and stylistic principles. Of these he cites three principal traits that can be identified with art cinema – realism, authorship, and ambiguity. It can be argued that in terms of these traits The Passenger is a good example of art cinema.


Taken in opposition to the classical narrative structure of dominant Hollywood cinema, a number of differing characteristics can be drawn in contrast to art cinema. In classical narratives, a narrative structure based on cause and effect logic motivates the cinematic representation. This is generally present alongside narrative parallelism or psychologically defined, goal-oriented characters. To this end narrative time and space are constructed to serve the telling of the story in a linear fashion. In terms of cinematic style, the use of specific types of cutting such as continuity, cross-cutting, and montage serve these ends, and characteristics of the mise-en-scene, cinematography, and sound further the plausibility and unity of the story-world. These techniques are employed for the primary goal of advancing the story. Other devices are utilized to create this unity of form such as the use of genre in order to not only create and likewise fulfil audience expectations but also to create discrete markets for production and distribution. Whereas classical narrative cinema is founded on the above, Bordwell argues that the structure of art cinema is far looser, and not driven by the cause-effect linkage of events insomuch as the motivations of art cinema differ form those of classical narrative. Of the three predominant characteristics of art cinema identified, Bordwell states that the use of realism and authorship create unity and serve as the motivations in the art film rather than cause and effect or the pursuit of a goal. Realism, meaning the use of real locations and real problems, also refers to what is considered “realistic”. By this, what is meant is psychologically complex characters and psychological causation as opposed to external situations and events that serve as the motivations for action or moving the story forward. Whereas in the classical...
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