Master Greek filmmaker featured in MFA retrospective
THE FILMS OF
A complete eight-film retrospective
begins tonight at the Museum of
By MANAVENDRA K. THAKUR
THEO ANGELOPOULOS has been making films in his native Greece for twenty-odd years now, but it is only in parts of Europe that his name has become well-known in film circles. Yet this maker of austere, formally complex films has created a body of work that is immediately identifiable as the work of a master film director. To bring this formidable talent to Boston audiences, the Museum of Fine Arts is showing a complete retrospective of Angelopoulos' films, eight in all, on Thursday and Friday nights.
The retrospective kicks off tonight with Angelopoulos' first and last films. Anaparastassi (Reconstruction) at first glance appears to be a straightforward film about the efforts of a detective to reconstruct the events that lead two lovers in a village to murder the woman's husband, who had just recently returned home to the village and who also knew and tolerated the love affair. However, the very first scene in the film (a long, stationary shot of a truck getting stuck in a muddy field), informs the viewer that this is no ordinary crime film. As the film unfolds, several aesthetic elements that are to become Angelopoulos trademarks are introduced, among them 360-degree pans, off-screen action, and long takes. Angelopoulos employs these and other methods in novel ways that have the cumulative effect of animating dead space and time. Some critics have even described Angelopoulos' aesthetic as a formal expansion of Yasujiro Ozu's famous off-screen space.
For example, a sequence from Anaparastassi shows some policemen taking the woman out of her house and into a police van. In a 360-degree rotational shot, the camera shows a bleak landscape of nearly deserted village roads, houses, and fields -- until the camera comes to rest on a group of older village women who surge forward and nearly lynch the woman accused of murder. This is perhaps the most important shot in the film, for it points out how the cruel poverty and suffering imposed by the harsh village life was in many ways responsible for the murder. Or at the very least, the village conditions created severe social pressures that culminated in the murder.
Regardless of whether one agrees with this assessment of the social situation, the important point is that Angelopoulos makes his Marxist critique of society not through the usual polemical bombast but via the formal qualities of his cinematic aesthetic. That is his unique contribution to cinema: the enrichment and expansion of the language of cinema, fueled by his Marxist beliefs and the strict control imposed by the military junta that ruled Greece from 1967 to 1974. For Angelopoulos to have achieved so much in a single film -- and his debut feature film at that -- is powerful testimony to the successes to come.
Perhaps Angelopoulos' greatest achievement came in a film that he began shooting while the junta was still in power and concluded after the junta fell. This was his 1975 film O Thaissos (The Traveling
Players), a magnificent four-hour epic that follows a troupe of actors who travel from place to place performing Spiridonos Perisiadis' Golfo the Shepherdess between 1939 and 1952. As the film unwinds, it becomes apparent that the traveling players are really a backdrop in front of which the turbulent history of the period unfolds. For example, on several occasions the performance of the play by the troupe is interrupted by soldiers of various allegiances, or by shelling or bombing runs.
The most fascinating part of the film, however, involves Angelopoulos' extremely inventive method of blurring time distinctions. In perhaps one of its most stunning moments, a group of fascists drunkenly leave a New Year's Eve party in 1946. As they swagger down the street, they begin walking more and more in step until they are marching down the road in full stride accompanied by martial music. They arrive, at the end of this unbroken and continuous seven-minute shot, at a rally in the town square celebrating the victory of Papagos -- which occurred in 1952. This one shot captures the growth of the fascists from a ragtag group of seemingly harmless and kooky right-wingers to a powerful and frightening political force, and at the same time, Angelopolous demolishes the linearity of time by totally identifying it with the spatial dimension represented by the distance the men travel down the road.
Such manipulation of time and space seems so natural now that one easily forgets that it is also utterly unique in cinematic history. No other director has explored this aspect of cinema and done it so well. Angelopoulos' achievement in this regard is matched in importance perhaps only by Andrei Tarkovsky's brilliant merging of dreams and reality in his 1974 masterpiece Zerkalo (The Mirror). The respective accomplishments embodied by these two films together represent the most significant advancement in the development of cinema as a narrative art form in the last 20 years.
There is much more to O Thaissos, of course, given that it is nearly four hours long. Americans unfamiliar with Greek history of the time will have trouble keeping up with the constant shifting in time within the film. Nevertheless, it is clear that a masterpiece of political and formal cinema is unfolding before the viewer's eyes. This is perhaps the one film in the retrospective that should not be missed. It will be shown Oct. 5 at 6pm.
After 1980, Angelopoulos began exploring other issues and themes. His long-take aesthetic remained mostly intact. But there were some changes. For one thing, Angelopoulos became more interested in dreams and dreamlike imagery. His 1984 film Taxidi sta Kithiri (Voyage to Cythera) never explicitly mentions it except in the title, but the thematic concerns of the film revolve around the metaphysical attempt to discover Cythera, the mythical "isle of dreams" where happiness and imagination reign supreme in a utopian vision.
The story unfolds with a fairly complex film-within-a-film structure, as it follows a director trying to make a film and who gains inspiration upon seeing a man who closely resembles his father. The film within the film tells the story of a former leftist agitator -- the father -- who has spent the last 30 years in the Soviet Union. He returns home to Greece, but he is reviled by his neighbors as a troublemaker and only grudgingly accepted by his family. To compound matters, the Greek government revokes his passport and strands him offshore on a barge floating in international waters. It is this man's attempt to return home, to pick up the pieces of a life uprooted three decades before, and to find peace of mind -- that is the voyage to Cythera referred to by the film's title.
Unfortunately, this film comes as a letdown after the powerful brilliance of his films from the 1970s. The film-within-a-film structure never really pays off for Angelopoulos in any significant way, and as beautiful as some of the imagery is,
the film leaves one unable to emotionally relate to its themes or characters. Of course, this was not possible in his earlier films either, but there it wasn't necessary. Here it seems that such identification is more important to the narrative, and the difficulty of achieving such identification makes the film disappointing in some ways. It still has interesting things to offer, but of the four Angelopoulos films screened for the press, this was perhaps the least successful.
Angelopoulos' most recent film, Topio stin Omichli (Landscape in the Mist, 1988), is more successful. It is in many ways a consummation of the themes and ideas that fueled Angelopoulos' previous films. As before, the film is shot in beautifully choreographed long takes with static shots and the characteristic 360-degree pans, and the images that Angelopoulos captures simply embed themselves in one's mind.
The film tells the story of an 11-year-old girl and 5-year-old boy who decide to run away from home to go stay with their
father in Germany. Early on, it is revealed that there really is no father, and that their quest is hopeless. But, far from a cruel depiction of unnecessary alienation, the voyage of the young kids is transformed into a chronicle of youths being introduced into the adult world.
However, the film is very different from the numerous coming-of-age films that appeared in this country. For one thing, the two kids aren't just presented as two na"ive children whose innocence is dramatically shattered. More importantly, events happen to the kids and around them, and the viewer responds to the events as well as the children themselves. Consequently, in many ways one could interpret this story as the emergence of Greece and Greek society out of the dark years of the military junta.
But apart from these thematic concerns, the film is pure pleasure visually. Several of the images haunt the mind long after the film is over. The ending of the film, while not terribly realistic, is still perhaps most appropriate.
The only unfortunate thing is that the film is being shown tonight at 7:45 pm, just after Angelopoulos' first film. While it is interesting to directly compare Angelopoulos' debut film with his most recent film, it would perhaps have been more instructive and enlightening to follow the progression of Angelopoulos through his cinematic career.
Nevertheless, this retrospective provides the viewer an invaluable chance to introduce himself or herself with a major film director, who is just now becoming more known in this country. The MFA should take a bow for bringing this series to Boston.
Editor's note: The other four films playing in this retrospective were unavailable for press screening.
"If I were asked to define my cinema, I would call it a cinema of dead spaces sandwiched between times in which things take place" -- Theo Angelopoulos.