The Greek filmmaker, Theo (say Tay-oh) Angelopoulos, died in January 2012 at the age of 76. Shooting a film in the area of Piraeus, south of Athens, he was hit by a motorcycle while crossing a road. It had been his life’s work to chronicle the modern history of Greece in his long and reflective movies. Rarely did his characters describe themselves or their situations in words. They moved instead on landscapes of evocative imagery. Everything Angelopoulos did was metaphorical.
Those of us who have not lived through the traumas of the Greek experience may never fully appreciate the sense of loss and the erosion of identity that his films evoked. The setbacks began more than 2000 years ago when the Romans subjugated Greece and appropriated everything of value in this brilliant but fragile culture. Greece would endure in the human memory as a metaphor of the ideal, while it’s people suffered under relentless waves of domination from foreign occupiers and tyrants at home. Only toward the end of the 20th century did the Greek citizenry regain full control of it’s a destiny as a nation. There are doubters and naysayers all around, but Angelopoulos nurtures hope that the unconquerable Greek spirit will rise from the ruins.
Angelopoulos made something over a dozen feature films, each one adding another part to a coherent picture. They are typically set in modern times, though themes from the ancient myths are often woven into the stories. Here is a sampler of a few of his films that I have found most illuminating.
Among the earliest films of Theo Angelopoulos, this is Part 2 of the “Trilogy of History.” It spans the years 1939-52, and runs for almost four hours. The film is exquisitely atmospheric moving like a slow fog coming in from the sea. It begins with a drab troupe of actors arriving in a small town to perform the Greek folk drama, “Golfo the Shepherdess.” They dress in folk costumes, the men in white skirts. The Nazis have occupied Greece. There is fear on the deserted streets and constant danger from soldiers and agents. Narrative or character development are minimal. This is a string of surreal events that jump back and forth with little continuity. Even so, it is a powerful depiction of the yearning of the Greek people for a restoration of democracy. When the British arrive after the departure of the Nazis, they want to restore the monarchy. In a cabaret, people sing of “Freedom not occupation.”
Roger Ebert was present at Cannes when Angelopoulos received an award for Ulysses’ Gaze (1995). The director was apparently miffed at not being awarded the top prize and Ebert conceived a lasting dislike for him. In his review of the movie, Ebert spoke of three hours of numbing boredom and ended his review with this indictment: “What arrogance and self-importance this film reveals.” There were others who loved it, including Gene Siskel, the other half of “Siskel & Ebert” on their TV program. It was one thumb up and one thumb down.
The Weeping Meadow (2004) – Greek
This film opens on the watery estuary outside of Thessaloniki in 1919. A group of well-dressed Greek refugees from Odessa are walking across the wet meadows to a new life in their homeland. They are escaping the Bolshevik Revolution. After the credits, the story picks up in the Greek village to which the refugees have relocated and a Romeo and Juliet tale of two young people and their forbidden love. The girl’s name is Eleni. The boy, named Alexis, is an accordion player and her adoptive brother. Eleni is forced to marry an older man the young lovers escape to Thessaloniki, “city of refugees.” They are helped by a group of itinerant musicians, older men, who were hired to play at the wedding. First they are sheltered in an abandoned theater where many people are living in the box seats as if they were minuscule apartments. The old man follows them to the theater and stands on the stage pleading with Eleni, who has escaped through the stage door with Alexis. There is a deeply embedded Greek theater metaphor at work here.
War is coming once again and the musicians find it hard to get work. They try to make a living playing for dances and parties but it is not a good time. The old man dies while trying to take Eleni from one of these dances. There is a stirring funeral where his body is put on a raft and poled along a flooded street in the village. The houses are inundated up to their second floors. There is a fire ceremony in the village and prayers are offered for the lifting of the curse that seems to be on them. In the city, there is labor strife as well as oncoming war; it’s as if a deluge of destruction is rising all around. Somebody says, “Greece’s feeble democracy is committing suicide.”
In 1937, Alexis takes an offer to board an ocean liner with the musicians and go to America, leaving his wife and children with a promise that he will send for them. Eleni is taken from her two boys and put in jail for aiding an insurgent. The worst of the abuse she endures is not shown onscreen. The Nazis have entered Greece. She learns that her husband joined the American Army and was killed in the Pacific. Soon afterward, she learns that one of her sons has been killed in combat. The two boys had grown to manhood and ended up on opposite sides in a Greek civil war. World War II is in progress during this time. A letter comes to Eleni from Alexis in Okinawa. He describes a dream of the two of them walking in a meadow full of dew. She puts her hand in the grass and the dewdrops fall to the ground like tears; it is the weeping meadow.
Eleni is helped by two older women to a place where her other son has been killed. The body has been laid on the second floor of one of the inundated houses. Eleni rows to the house and crawls to her son’s corpse, keening in despair. She raises her head to the gray sky and screams. The End.
In an interview on the DVD, the director speaks of the process of making the last of his film trilogies. The inspiration for this project came to him at the time of his mother’s death in 1998. She had lived the length of the 20th century and he wanted to record this time through the lens of tragic Greek experience. It was not meant to be a trilogy but it got too long for one movie. He had personal memories of a theater in Athens where as a youth he saw refugees taking up residence in the box seats.
This was Part One of the Trilogy on Modern Greece, covering the years 1919 to 1949. It was followed by The Dust Of Time (2009). Part 3, The Other Sea, was unfinished at the time of the director’s death by a rushing machine in 2012. It was his last metaphor.