At 70, the great Greek director Theo Angelopoulos has made the bold decision to embark on a trilogy. This is newsworthy because Angelopoulos is also the least hasty of filmmakers: Most of his films -- 1995's bewitching ''Ulysses' Gaze," with Harvey Keitel as an Angelopoulos stand-in, being the best known in America -- can last 2 1/2 hours. And they come sporadically. His previous picture, ''Eternity and a Day," was seven years ago, so he could be 85 before his trilogy is finished. But if the spectral first installment, ''The Weeping Meadow," is any indication of what's to come, I'm willing to wait.
Angelopoulos intends the trilogy to summarize the 20th century, from a presumably Hellenistic vantage point. ''The Weeping Meadow" begins in 1919 with a band of Greek refugees from Odessa arriving at a silky-looking pool of water. They have fled the Bolsheviks all the way back to a shabby village in their homeland. The film concludes almost three hours later at the end of the Second World War. This being an Angelopoulos film, the years pass in the sort of furtive ellipses that can trick you into thinking no time has passed at all.
Angelopoulos is a minimalist. So while the film has a sort of biblical ambition, its details are more intimate. It starts as a bereft homecoming, then becomes a love story that spans the allotted eras. Alexis (Nikos Poursanidis), a young accordion player, runs off with his father's bride, Eleni (Alexandra Aidini), who is also his adopted sister. He's recruited to join a band that travels to America. The lovers are separated, and the movie's historical trajectory -- the rise of the Fascists and then the Nazis -- falls almost squarely on Eleni, who has been imagined as a heroine in the mold of Greek tragedy.
For 40 minutes or so, ''The Weeping Meadow" is a curiosity. Its perpetual grayness, the deliberate movements of the actors, and the oscillations between kookiness and melancholy feel, distressingly, like Euro-hooey. Alexis and Eleni fall in with a group of troubadours, who are liable to serenade without warning. In one moment, a boat blares its foghorn, prompting Alexis to exclaim, ''America!" Apparently, Angelopoulos is using this time to find his footing and declare what he's made: a poem.
Few directors can compose shots as magnificently and magically as Angelopoulos. The film is arranged not as a narrative but as a series of tableaux, and with each one the movie turns increasingly beautiful. The director, his cinematographer (Andreas Sinanos), and art designers (Giorgos Patsas and Costas Dimitriadis) have devised a number of astounding images large and small. One shot of an unworn gown draped over a chair, a pair of shoes, and a window is a masterpiece of painterly framing.
Angelopoulos's recent films have been haunting and haunted. ''The Weeping Meadow" makes the surreal seem utterly possible. It's like a folkloric Old Testament dream come alive: exodus, flood, fire, death, and grief. Purely from the standpoint of scale, chapter two has its work cut out for it.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.