Late last week, the great Greek director Theo Angelopoulos was struck by a motorcycle in the port city of Piraeus. He was in the middle of shooting a new film. The cause of death carries a degree of irony, insofar as it was the opposite of his art. The accident sounds as if it were quick, violent, and decisive. Almost nothing is quick in Angelopoulos's films, especially death. In "Eternity and a Day" (1998), a poet, played by Bruno Ganz, waits to die, and Angelopoulos waits with him. The camera doesn't simply watch him or the Albanian child who comes into his life. It was watches over them. That's not an idle title. It's a promise. "Voyage to Cythera" (1984) is a remembrance about the dead of the Greek Civil War.
Angelopoulos is probably best known for "Ulysses' Gaze," from 1995, because it starred Harvey Keitel -- and because it's great. The film is among the most roving of his cinematic canvases. Keitel is a filmmaker named "A," who, after 35 years, has come home to Greece from America only to begin a trek across the Balkans. His objective is not to make a movie, exactly, but to find the missing films of the brothers Ianachia and Milton Manakis, photographers who also brought cinema to the Balkans. The quest entails tarnished vestiges of the Soviet Empire, a deep but quiet consideration of the collapses of Yugoslavia, excursions back to 1945 and 1946, and several women interested in Keitel.
The movie would be a folly were it not also serious and devoted to matter-of-fact surrealism. (Maia Morgenstern plays each of the women.) But the reason Angelopoulos remained an acquired taste is because his version of the surreal was mysterious in a way that deviated from the storied, imported Europeans -- the Bergmans and Fellinis, to name two. Angelopoulos didn't always seem interested in solving the mysteries he put before us, not even with an actual mystery, as was his ninth movie, 1991's "The Suspended Step of the Stork," which starred Marcello Mastroianni as a disappeared politician and Jeanne Moreau as his ex wife.
They aren't around much. Most of the film is devoted to matters of journalistic detective work (you hate to say it, but Angelopoulos has the gravitas and global pate of Telly Savalas) and at its crux is a question of refugees, borders, and boundaries. The "suspended step" of the title is so Angelopoulos. With him, what other kind of step could there be? It's also typical of him to hire a star like Mastroianni then vanish him. He turned Fellini's most astral instrument into thin air. There were more important matters to investigate. Angelopoulos didn't practice narrative filmmaking, per se. He made allegorical tableaux that were indifferent to the line seperating the present from the past (they often occured within the same frame) and that declared that the world and its problems were bigger than any one person’s psyche -- bigger than his, too. That also might be why his movies never really caught on here. We want the rose more than we want the blooming or the thorns. Angelopoulos was all gradual unfurling. We knew we could get the circus elsewhere, and so we did. Angelopoulos didn't want to fill another director's niche. He was undreamt Fellini.
According to a profile Judy Stone wrote from the Toronto International Film Festival in 1992, a Greek Orthodox bishop excommunicated Angelopoulos, his cast, and crew during the "Stork" production. The director's crimes were anti-nationalism and "indecent content." A bishop said that he thought the films implicit message -- "down with borders" -- was unpatriotic. Angelopoulos, who came of age during two dictatorships, two occupations (Germany during World War II, Britain after it), and a civil war, believed cinema was the best way to combat demagoguery and punitive, repressive small-mindedness, to push back against the church and state, which at the height of his powers, in, say, "The Traveling Players," from 1974, he could do with exquisite framing and grand silence.
Angelopoulos was at work on a trilogy about the 20th century. He'd begun it with "The Weeping Meadow," which was released here in 2006 and managed to give a young-love story Old Testament heft. The second installment, "The Dust of Time," came out in 2008. We'll never know how the third film would go, but that project always struck me as a tad redundant. Here was a director who had already devoted his career to a grand chronicle of a century's pains and ache.
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