The Theo Angelopoulos Collection Volume III Review
This is the third and final review of the Angelopoulos Collection DVD boxsets released by Artificial Eye. My reviews of Volumes I and II are here and here. The first review includes an introduction to Angelopoulos' work and filmmaking style and themes.
On 24 January 2012, two days after I posted the review of Volume II, Theo Angelopoulos died suddenly, hit by a motorcycle while crossing a road. He was seventy-six years old and was in the middle of making The Other Sea, the last of the trilogy begun with The Weeping Meadow and continued with The Dust of Time. Thu, Artificial Eye's series of boxset releases – no doubt no doubt seen as a work in progress by the UK distributor who has supported Angelopoulos' work since near the beginning, of his career and their existence – now serves as a full stop. While at the time of writing (May 2012), it is unknown what will be done with the existing footage from The Other Sea, or if indeed the film can be completed in any form at all, these three boxes contain all thirteen of Angelopoulos' feature films. Volume III begins with....
Ulysses' Gaze (To vlemma tou Odissea) (released 1995, running time 169:09, certificate PG)
Following the box office failure of Landscape in the Mist, Angelopoulos' next feature The Suspended Step of the Stork did not receive a UK cinema release. (Both films are included in Volume II, and see my review for further details.) However, Ulysses' Gaze won the Grand Jury Prize and the International Critics' Prize at Cannes and rectified that omission.
The film concerns an American filmmaker of Greek extraction (unnamed on screen but referred to in the credits as “A”, and played by Harvey Keitel) who returns to his homeland. He is there for a screening of his new film, but his true purpose is to track down three reels of film shot by Greek cinema pioneers the Manakis brothers at the beginning of the twentieth century. His quest takes him across the Balkans, ravaged by war, ending in Sarajevo.
Ulysses' Gaze followed on from Suspended Step... as the second of Angelopoulos' Trilogy Of Borders, in part his response to the changes in Europe post 1989. With a running time approaching three hours (only Alexander the Great and The Travelling Players are longer), it is a return to the epic mode, after several smaller-scale works. Angelopoulos never shot a film in an aspect ratio wider than 1.85:1, and his first eight features are all in Academy Ratio, but once again he shows that you don't need a wide screen to convey a sense of size and scale: picture height contributes just as much as picture width. It's there in the architecture, some of it bombed out, that he shows us on screen, in the trademark sequence shots with large numbers of extras. One major setpiece involves a huge statue of Lenin travelling downriver in a boat. There's a genuine frisson in scenes like this, as there is no fakery, and no use of CGI: what we seen on screen is really taking place in front of the camera lens. Another scene takes us through ten years of Greek history in one unbroken shot. DPs Giorgos Arvanatis and Andreas Sinanos and score composer Eleni Karaindrou make considerable contributions.
Harvey Keitel's usual Method-like intensity is tamped down here, and it's fair to say that he doesn't always seem comfortable. He speaks his dialogue in English (as opposed to Marcello Mastroianni and Bruno Ganz, in earlier and later films, who are dubbed into Greek) and it's also fair to say that the dialogue is a little stiff and unidiomatic to English ears. (The distinguished, and also recently deceased, Italian screenwriter Tonino Guerra, who had written for Angelopoulos on all his features from Voyage to Cythera onwards, collaborated on the screenplay.) On the other hand, the sheer reach of the film remains engaging, if you can adjust to Angelopoulos' distinctive style, and the ending is powerful. Ulysses' Gaze is a major work.
Eternity and a Day (Mia Aioniotita kai mia Mera) (1998, 127:30, PG)
While Ulysses' Gaze attracted wide acclaim, it didn't win the Palme d'Or at Cannes, which went to a very different view of the Balkan conflict, Emir Kusturica's Underground. Angelopoulos seemed to take this as a personal affront, so when he did win the Palme three years later, he accepted it with less than good grace, as if it was his due.
The film is a return to a chamber style, and (relatively) shorter length. It concerns the last days of Alexandre (Bruno Ganz, bearded and dubbed into Greek), a poet. He is terminally ill, and as he prepares to leave his house for the last time to go into hospital, he finds a letter from his dead wife Anna (Isabelle Renaud), remembering a day they spent thirty years before. Alexander's journey is an internal one, Angelopoulos's sequence shots crossing time as well as space, with present-day Alexandre entering his own memories of himself three decades earlier. He also becomes involved in the fate of a young refugee boy (Achilleas Skevis). During the course of the film, Alexandre assesses his life, one spent seeking the right words for poems and novels, but somehow missing out on true happiness. Eternity and a Day is a story of redemption.
Ganz seems more comfortable in Angelopoulos' universe than Keitel did three years earlier, and he gives Alexandre a solid presence which makes the final stages of the film genuinely moving. Whether this should have been the one of this directors' films to win that top prize is debatable, but it's still one of Angelopoulos' major works.
Trilogy: The Weeping Meadow (Trilogia I: Tou livadi pou Dakryzei) (2004, 162:22, PG)
Angelopoulos made a few short films in between features, namely segments of the portmanteau films Lumière and Company (1995), To Each His Own Cinema (2007) and Mondo Invisivel (2011), the last-named now standing as his last completed work. None of these are included in this box set, nor was his early short Broadcast (1968). However, there was a longer than usual gap between Eternity and a Day and his next film, six years. This may say something about the difficulties of financing such large-scale arthouse cinema of which Angelopoulos was one of the standard bearers.
The film that did emerge was the start of a new trilogy, even to the point of including the word “Trilogy” in the title. That said, as with Angelopoulos' other three trilogies, each film is self-contained. Once again, Angelopoulos delved into European, especially Greek, history, intending to cover most of the twentieth century. The film begins with the 1919 exodus of the Greek community from Odessa, in the wake of the Red Army's advance during the Bolshevik Revolution, and concludes in 1949 with the end of the Greek Civil War. The narrative centres on Spyros (Vassilis Kolovos), his wife Danai (Thalia Arginou) and son Alexis (Nikos Poursanidis). With them is a young orphan girl, Eleni (Alexandra Aidini), whom they picked up on the way. Alexis and Eleni become lovers and Eleni goes away to Thessaloniki to give birth in secret to twin sons. When Danai dies, Spyros arranges to be married to Eleni, but she runs away with Alexis, and Spyros pursues them. This story is counterpointed by the events in Greek history over thirty years.
The Weeping Meadow is not the easiest of Angelopoulos' films for beginners, as much of the narrative is oblique, and viewers are expected to pick up the historical and cultural references, including some to mythology, and the characters in the film are more archetypes than individuals. This is the first film without Giorgios Arvanatis behind the camera, but Andreas Sinanos (who had collaborated with Arvanatis from The Suspended Step of the Stork onwards) is just as good a replacement. As ever with an Angelopoulos film, it's the imagery and the long, intricately choreographed sequence shots, accompanied by Eleni Karaindrou's music score, which linger in the mind.
The Dust of Time (Trilogia II: I skoni tou hronou) (2008, 122:34, PG)
The second of the trilogy (though not onscreen in this version, which has English-languagr credits), The Dust of Time is to The Weeping Meadow as Eternity and a Day was to Ulysses' Gaze: a smaller-scale, chamber work following an epic. Once again our central character is an American film director of Greek descent, known as A (played this time by Willem Dafor). He retraces his roots and the story of his mother Eleni (Irène Jacob) and the two men she loved, Jacob (Bruno Ganz) and Spyros (Michel Piccoli). However, the dust of time of the title confuses matters and memories fade and become unreliable. This story is set against historical events in the later twentieth century: the death of Stalin, the Vietnam War, Watergate,, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the hopes for a new Europe.
The Dust of Time was the first Angelopoulos feature since The Suspended Step of the Stork not to gain a UK cinema release, appearing four years later on DVD. It's not hard to see why: it seems (after a couple of viewings) a distinctly private work, not always easy to follow, and without the compensations of Angelopoulos's larger-scale work. Also, being primarily in English, it has a similar problem to Ulysses' Gaze, only more so, in that the dialogue sounds stiff and unidiomatic. The use of slow motion in the final shot also seems like a misjudgement. This film takes us into the early twenty-first century. Sadly, if The Other Sea (which had the intriguing working title Tomorrow) will not now see the light of day, The Dust of Time stands as a disappointing last testament from a great director.
This boxset comprises four dual-layered discs, each encoded for all regions. Trilogy: The Weeping Meadow was previously released on its own in 2005 (reviewed by Noel Megahey here) and that disc is repackaged in this set. The Dust of Time has also had a separate DVD release, in 2012. Affiliate links refer to the box set, not to the single editions.
The first two films are transferred in a ratio of 1.75:1, slightly windowboxed, a little more so on the right than on the other three sides. Trilogy: The Weeping Meadow is 1.78:1 and The Dust of Time is 1.85:1. All are anamorphically enhanced. Angelopoulos DVDs were planned for some time, and some of these transfers do show their age – quite acceptable, but a little softer than they should be – though the director's penchant for staging scenes in mist doesn't help. Blacks tend to be dense and lacking in detail. Some minor print damage is visible too. The Dust of Time, the newest film in the set, does look brighter and sharper – possibly too much so, as edge enhancement is visible in places.
Ulysses' Gaze was Angelopoulos' first film with a stereo soundtrack, and that, Eternity and a Day and Trilogy: The Weeping Meadow are presented on DVD with Dolby Surround (2.0) tracks. The Dust of Time gives you the option of Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Surround. There's not a great deal in it: like the earlier films, the surrounds are used for ambience and the music score, with no use of directional sound effects. Trilogy: The Weeping Meadow is almost entirely in Greek, but the other films have a mix of languages, with Greek predominating (Bruno Ganz dubbed) in Eternity and a Day and, given the nationality of their leading men, English predominating in Ulysses' Gaze and The Dust of Time. The optional English subtitles only translate the non-English dialogue – and (as is usual with subtitle tracks of multilingual films, rarely mention when different foreign languages are spoken.
The only extras in this set are those on the Trilogy: The Weeping Meadow disc. These begin with a very grainy theatrical trailer (2:22) and a two-page text biography and filmography of the director. More substantial. is an interview (29:10). It is presented in 4:3 and Angelopoulos speaks in French (fixed English subtitles) and discusses this film and his working methods, and his collaborations with Tonino Guerra and Eleni Karaindrou.
The other three discs are barebones. Some of Angelopoulos' short films, as mentioned above, would have been welcome additions, but let's not sound ungrateful.
In his Biographical Dictionary of Film David Thomson named Angelopulos as one of the great masters of cinema, if possibly the least known. My copy of the book is the 2002 edition, and since he wrote that, there are fewer masters. Of his list, Antonioni, then in poor health, has passed away, and Rivette has Alzheimer's Disease. Of other exponents of that beleaguered species, the European art film, Eric Rohmer has died and Béla Tarr has retired from filmmaking. Sadly, with Angelopoulos's death earlier this year, there is one less still. But at least we have the films, and thanks to Artificial Eye you can have all of his features in three boxes.