Trilogy: The Weeping Meadow Review

The first film of a projected trilogy covering the political and social history of modern Greece with mythological undertones, over the course of almost the entire period of the 20th century, Trilogy: The Weeping Meadow running at almost three hours, is every bit as epic and as grand as its title and aspirations suggest, and is of such a scope and ambition that it could only be undertaken by one director - Theo Angelopolous.

The film opens in 1919 with the exodus of the Greek community from Odessa, fleeing the advance of the Red Army during the Bolshevik revolution. Leading the group is Spyros (Vassilis Kolovos), his wife Danae and son Alexis, together with a young orphan girl, Eleni, they have picked up on the way. A number of years later after a long absence, Eleni (Alexandra Aidini) returns to their riverside village the community have established, having gone to Thessaloniki to give birth in secret to two twin sons, Yorgis and Yannis. When his wife dies, Spyros arranges to be married to Eleni, but after the wedding ceremony, she runs away with Spyros’ son Alexis (Nikos Poursadinis), the father of her twins. Taking up with a group of travelling musicians, the couple move to Thessaloniki, but are pursued by the half-demented Sypros. Alexis tries to make a living as an accordion player in Nikos’ band, and dreams of the promise of a future playing in America. However, the family are caught up in the political upheaval of events in Greece, between the Fascist government, the Trade Unions, and in the wider world with the outbreak of World War II.

The first part of Angelopoulos’ Trilogy is an epic within itself, covering the fortunes of a family during the first half of the 20th century played out against the background of all the major political events that occurred in Greece during that period and the focus is very much on the larger picture. Practically every scene is an epic tableau, the camera slowly panning over ritualised processions – exoduses of refugees, grand funeral ceremonies – in which humanity is often reduced to mere dots on the larger canvas of history. This is not a film of subtle insights and characterisations – this is Angelopoulos working on a grand and mythic scale, the characters often reduced to little more than symbols. The principal character, Eleni’s name with its Hellenistic root represents Greece itself and, like many of Angelopoulos’ films, imagery is often drawn from Greek mythology, most notably in a reference to Penelope from The Odyssey, Eleni allows a woollen garment she has knitted for Alexis’ departure to be unravelled. We never really get to know anything much about Yorgis and Yannis, Eleni's children, who, as twins split apart, are reduced by the film to little more than representations of the divisions caused by the Greek Civil War.

By the same token however, the major upheavals – political and social – are rarely directly confronted. Major events take place off screen, the passage of time marked only by the constant passing of a train, finding the characters left trying to cope with all the hardships of the interwar years. With all these elliptical jumps and long slow silent processional scenes, The Weeping Meadow is an extremely mannered film that is heavily weighed with the director’s obsessions and imagery. The trains mark out the passage of time and the progress of the Greek people, as refugees exiled from home or displaced by the war, buffeted by the internal conflicts and having to constantly keep moving forward along with the changes affecting the wider world. The characteristic presence in an Angelopoulos film of black umbrellas in the rain is further taken to extremes here and extended to the larger scale symbolism of black flags. Two particular devices dominate however – water and music. Water features in abundance, from the first frame to the last and as a background to everything in between. It represents life – the town that gives birth to the modern community is build on a river – it represents hope – as an ocean to be crossed to the promised land of America - and it represents death, a kind of river Styx that must be faced by everyone, seen in the dramatic funeral of Spyros and elsewhere. Moreover, it constantly pours down from the sky, inundating and flooding the village with its presence. The music, also a constant presence throughout the film, represents the interior lives of the people, being both a lament for their past and a dance towards the future. "I’m someone condemned to creating in the mud", declares Nikos (Giorgos Armenis) at one stage, trying to organise a dance in defiance of the fascist police and, like its use in Béla Tarr’s Damnation, it’s the music of life itself, vital coming deep from within the soul, that fuels the dreams and hopes of the people, gives them strength, keeps them on their feet and moving forward, rising above the poverty of their circumstances.

Such preponderance of imagery, symbolism and repetition of themes together with the long slow single-shot takes weigh heavily on the film, and at three hours long, this is not for the faint-hearted, but two elements successfully lift the film up to the heights it aspires to. Director of photography Andreas Sinanos fills the frame with unforgettable images and sequences that border on surrealism while at the same time being firmly based on realism, relating the film to specific characters but raising them to the larger scale that the film demands. Eleni Karaindrou similarly provides an extraordinarily beautiful score that pervades and uplifts, being down to earth and integral as part of the film in the music played by the musicians, but also rising above it and carrying the film through melancholic reflection up to the highest aspirations of hope and freedom.

Trilogy: The Weeping Meadow is released in the UK by Artificial Eye, who have long championed the works of Angelopoulos and will soon bring the director’s back catalogue to DVD.

Presented in a 1.78:1 anamorphic ratio, the quality of the transfer is variable. At times, particularly in outdoor scenes, it handles the drab palette of the film’s colour scheme rather well, but dark interiors and nighttime scenes look particularly dense and indistinct. Grain is evident, but it’s the kind of grain that shows up in macro-blocking. It’s not that troublesome on an average sized screen, but projecting the image could show up the transfer’s limitations. I also noticed the image judder ever so slightly in the slow pans of the camera – of which there are more than a few in the film. The interview with the director presented in the extra features shows clips of scenes that make the film look slightly brighter and sharper than the tone presented in the main feature film, so there’s the feeling that the film should perhaps look rather better than this.

The soundtrack is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 and makes fair use of the stereo separation, the music in particular rising nicely out of the mix. Dialogues are less frequent, but are relatively clear, though a little bit deep toned.

English subtitles are provided in a white font and are optional.

Typically for an Artificial Eye release, extras are not numerous, but are of excellent quality and value. A Trailer (2:22) summarises the film well, made up entirely of stills of the extraordinary images seen in the film, and a musical accompaniment. A very brief Biography/Filmography gives rather generalised information about the director, but the Interview with Theo Angelopoulos (29:10) is a superbly informative, warm and open discussion by the director of his work. Speaking in French, Angelopoulos describes how the film came to be written, his work with Tonino Guerra on the script, his relationship with actors and his use of music in the film.

Trilogy: The Weeping Meadow is often difficult and frustrating viewing with its oblique characters, its constant repetition of imagery, its ponderous mannerisms and slow moving tableaux - but this is film of massive ambition and scale and it can’t be related to in conventional cinematic terms of plot, characterisation and performance. Quite simply, you’ll see unforgettable scenes and images tied into vital aspects of life in the 20th century, related by one of the true masters of modern cinema, and for that alone, this is essential viewing. Although the extra features support the film well, Artificial Eye’s DVD transfer isn’t fully up to the demands of the film and fails to give it the clarity and stability it requires, but the power of Trilogy: The Weeping Meadow is no less clearly apparent.

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