The Beekeeper (O melissokomos) Review
Spyros (Marcello Mastroianni), a disenchanted middle-aged schoolteacher, leaves his job and travels across Greece, his cherished beehives with him, seeking springtime flowers for his bees. On the way, he encounters a young female hitchhiker (Nadia Mourouzi), for whom he develops an overwhelming obsession.
Theodoros Angelopoulos (born 1936) is a major exponent of what could be called high European arthouse cinema, films where artistic self-expression and exploration of philosophical and spiritual issues are at the forefront.. It's a cheap shot, but this kind of cinema can be so lofty-minded that when you hear pop music on a jukebox (as you do in The Beekeeper) it seems almost unseemly. Angelopoulos's films require an adjustment to those used to more conventional Western ideas of shot construction and pacing, but the results are frequently compelling, with many memorable images which reward your patience.
The basic unit of Angelopoulos's cinematic vocabulary is the sequence shot. As much as possible he will shoot a scene in a single take, the camera frequently tracking and panning (in the opening shot of The Beekeeper travelling through 360 degrees), the transitions between close, medium and long shots being carried out by camera movement rather than by editing. Angelopoulos can even shift in time and between reality and fantasy or dream in the same shot, which sometimes extend up to ten minutes, the normal maximum length of a reel of 35mm film. This long-take style is reminiscent of that of the Hungarian directors Miklós Jancsó and Béla Tarr, though Angelopoulos claims that his influences were Murnau, Mizoguchi and Welles. With greater shot length comes an inevitably slow pace and often extended running times: two and a quarter hours for the Cannes Palme d'Or winner Eternity and a Day, two and three quarters for Trilogy: The Weeping Meadow, three for Ulysses' Gaze, three and a half for Alexander the Great and nearly four for his breakthrough third feature The Travelling Players which has all of approximately eighty shots in its entire 230-minute duration. Key collaborators are the score composer Eleni Karaindrou and cinematographer Giorgios Arvanatis, who typically favours muted pastel shades rather than brighter colours.
In addition to this, Angelopoulos is an unequivocally Greek filmmaker, but very different to other directors from that country who have gained international prominence (Michael Cacoyannis and Costa-Gavras, for example). His films contain references to Greek culture and history and use symbolism, all of which a local audience would be expected to pick up but which may elude foreign audiences. (Watching two of his films in the cinema with a Greek friend helped, in my case.) For example, at one point in Eternity and a Day, a woman comes on screen and presents our hero (Bruno Ganz) with his dog, telling him that it's sick. The dog is a symbol of the soul, and soul-sick males are not uncommon in Angelopoulos's work. It's not hard to spot the symbolism of the bees in The Beekeeper as representing Spyros's passion, which he keeps contained. (His relationship with his wife seems to have become quite desiccated.) When a strong wind blows, he hurriedly places rocks on the lids to prevent the hives blowing open. An opening voiceover describes the dance of male bees to attract a queen, and much of what follows plays out such a dance.
With a two-hour running time, The Beekeeper is a chamber work compared to other Angelopoulos films. It benefits greatly from Marcello Mastroianni's presence – his appearance prefiguring other international actors' work in the director's films, such as Bruno Ganz and also Harvey Keitel in Ulysses' Gaze. Mastroianni entered a purple patch in the last decade of his life, winning a Cannes Prize and an Oscar nomination for the following year's Dark Eyes, and you can see an example in The Beekeeper. We're shown but not told Spyros's malaise and his obsessive lust for the unnamed hitchhiker: it's all there in Mastroianni's body language, especially remarkable in that there are few close shots in this film. On the other hand, the hitchhiker comes uneasily close to a middle-aged-male fantasy figure, a free spirit given to fucking a casual pick-up in the bed next to Spyros and not running a mile when he (who must be around three times her age) finally comes on to her. It's also unfortunate that female sexuality is seen as a destructive force.
Angelopoulos owes his reputation in the UK to Artificial Eye, The Travelling Players being one of their first theatrical releases, back in 1976, and they have released many of his subsequent features in the UK. There have been announcements that they will release his back catalogue on DVD, but up to now only his 2004 film Trilogy: The Weeping Meadow has appeared. The Beekeeper is an absorbing work though not to my mind quite top-flight Angelopoulos, and its release is a step in the right direction.
The Beekeeper is released by Artificial Eye on a dual-layered PAL format encoded for all regions. It's a port of MK2's French release, which would explain the presence of a dubbed track in that language.
The DVD transfer is in a ratio of 1.33:1, the opening credits sequence (there are no closing credits) being windowboxed, the rest of the feature being full-frame. Academy Ratio may well be intended – Angelopoulos would not have been the only European filmmaker using that ratio in the mid 1980s, the cinemas likely to show their work being equipped to show it correctly. (The three Angelopoulos films I have seen in the cinema, all postdating this one, were in 1.66:1, for the record.) This transfer does seem as if it's a few years old, as it doesn't look like the HD-derived one that would be used nowadays: there's some noise and the image is softer than it perhaps should be, though Angelopoulos's and Arvanatis's preference for muted colours and natural light may have something to do with that. It's certainly acceptable, just not top-notch.
The soundtrack is in mono. The original track is mostly in Greek, with the sequence where Spyros visits his ailing father (Serge Reggiani) being conducted in French. The track is certainly up to the job, with dialogue, the music score and sound effects being well balanced. (Mastroianni may be dubbed by a Greek actor, as Ganz and Keitel were, but I haven't been able to confirm that and it's not easy to tell from the film itself.) Alternatively there is a French dub track. English subtitles are optional.
The only extras are five trailers, one for The Beekeeper itself (1:30). This is of French origin – the film's title being given as L'apiculteur - and looks like it has been mastered from a video source. The other trailers are for other DVD releases from Artificial Eye: Three Times, The Child, Climates and Russian Ark. You have to wonder how long this DVD has been in the making, as the most recent of these releases is from 2007.