Monday, January 30, 2012

Theo Angelopoulos

Theo Angelopoulos, 1935-2012

The great Greek director Theo Angelopoulos died two weeks back and I had no idea. There may be people who have never heard of him, or seen his films, but he was a great filmmaker, a maestro in the league of Bergman, Fellini, Tarkovsky or Ray, who, in his films, exploited the potential of the cinematic medium to its utmost potential.

Angelopoulos was a master of grand visuals. Cinema is a visual art, above everything else, and very few directors have explored this to such artistic perfection as Angelopoulos. And, he was an overtly political filmmaker. It’s not easy to sit though an Angelopoulos film, for not only they are long, they are slow; but, if you sit though it, it’s rewarding unlike anything else. A case in point, the floating barge in ‘The Weeping Meadow’; you have never seen something like this elsewhere.

As someone wrote, it is ironic that Angelopoulos should die in a road mishap; he was hit by a motorcycle while filming in Athens. For, it was a quick death, something that he never allowed his characters.

He was a political filmmaker unlike anyone else. As someone said, the tumult of modern Greek history, if everything else is lost, can be recreated from Angelopoulos films. And this is not an exaggeration. Perhaps, this explains why his films never contained the traditional ‘The End’ at the end; his films never end, from the screen they slip into the real life.

According to popular consensus, his best film is ‘Ulysses’s Gaze’ (1997), starring Harvey Keital as a filmmaker A who returns to his native Greece looking for some missing films. Some say, it’s ‘Landscape in the Mist’ (1988), about two sibling along on a journey looking for their father.

I have seen both the films, and also ‘Eternity and a Day’ (1998), and ‘Dust of Time’ (2009), starring Willem Dafoe. But the film I admire most is ‘The Suspended Step of the Stork’ (1991),’ which starred Marcello Mastroianni as a disappeared politician and Jeanne Moreau as his ex-wife.

I find this film utterly fascinating, perhaps because this is the only Angelopoulos film I have seen several times, and every time it affects me unlike any film has ever done. I like everything about it, right from the title. Only last month, I had shown my students at the culture study class I conducted, a scene from the film, the wedding scene, and was again struck by the depth of socio-political allegory of our time.

The film tells the story of a nation in war, a nation divided into two, and about a politician who has gone missing. While reporting from the divided country, a young journalist notices a man who looks like the politician who had gone missing at the height of his career. He decides to investigate the matter and in the process, understands the condition of the refugees.

The country has been divided in the middle of the river. On the river is a bridge. On the middle of the bridge there is a line. On the other side of the line is the enemy state. There stands the alert guards. Should you cross the line, they are ordered to shoot at you. The journalist walks to the middle of the bridge and stand in front of the line. He lifts his right leg as the alert guards on the other side watch. He would be dead if he puts his leg on the other side. The leg remains suspended, like a stork waiting for its prey — the most powerful visual I have ever seen in films.

There is a wedding. The couple was engaged before the border was drawn. Now, the bride is on one side of the river and the groom on the other. The marriage ceremony is performed nonetheless. The bride’s side assemble on one side and the groom’s side on the other. The priest arrives in a cycle. The bride’s father stands proxy at the place where the groom should have been, as the groom looks on from the other side. It was perhaps the most poetic and most mournful wedding ever depicted on screen. And, the power of the scene gets you, everytime.

The only regret I have is I have never seen an Angelopoulos film on the big screen. It would be an experience.

Theo Angelopoulos: His best films (From The Guardian)

Theo Angelopoulos' first feature, ‘The Reconstruction’ (1970), draws on the real-life murder of a Greek worker (Yannis Totsikas, left) in Germany by his wife (Toula Stathopoulou) and her lover (Michalis Fotopoulos). The murder story, and its 'reconstruction', becomes a parable for the disruption of a community and a nation – Greece was under military rule at the time.

Angelopoulos' second film, ‘Days of 36’, was set during Greece's tumultuous interwar period, when unstable governments alternated with military coups with alarming regularity. ‘Days of 36’ focuses on a politically sensitive hostage situation, which Angelopoulos uses to lay bare the state's fragmentation as Metaxa's fascist dictatorship loomed.

Angelopoulos' international breakthrough, ‘The Travelling Players’, is an epic tableau of 20th-century Greek history, told through the experiences of a touring group of actors – whose own stories are modelled on the Agamemnon myth. Among other awards, it won the BFI's Sutherland trophy.

Angelopoulos took on the Stalinist cult of personality in his 1980 movie ‘Alexander the Great’, with Omero Antonutti as the 19th-century bandit of the title. This Alexander, whose name references the mythic Greek figure of antiquity, wordlessly tyrannises an agrarian commune – the liberator turned oppressor.

‘Voyage to Cythera’ (1984), co-scripted by Tonino Guerra, is another parable of Greece's political history. Manos Kakrakis, an aging Odysseus, and his wife Dora Volanaki are adrift on a raft with no home or destination: the failure of the communist dream.

International icon Marcello Mastroianni took on the lead role in Angelopoulos' 1986 chronicle of stasis and despair, ‘The Beekeeper’. Mastroianni's Spyros travels the traditional beekeeping routes, utterly unable to connect with the changing world around him.

Angelopoulos's ‘Landscape in the Mist’ is another parable of search without discovery. Two children sneak on board a train they hope will take them to Germany – but only baffling disappointment awaits.

In ‘Ulysses' Gaze’ Angelopoulos secured Harvey Keitel to play a Greek-American filmmaker obsessed with finding lost documentary footage of 'ordinary' people. The film was awarded the grand prix runner-up prize at Cannes; Angelopoulos was dismayed.

Angelopoulos finally secured the Palme d'Or with his 1998 film ‘Eternity and a Day’, in which a dying writer (Bruno Ganz) helps a young Albanian boy (Archileas Skevis) as a kind of distraction from his own impending dissolution.

The first in a projected trilogy, ‘The Weeping Meadow’ documents the turbulent first half of the 20th century, following a single family from the Russian revolution to the postwar civil conflict in Greece.

Angelopoulos' last completed feature was 2009's ‘The Dust of Time’, starring Michel Piccoli, Willem Dafoe and Irene Jacob. Dafoe takes on the Keitel role of a Greek-American film-maker; Jacob is his mother Eleni, a woman who manages to reunite with her husband Spyros (Piccoli) after deportation to a Soviet labour camp.

Theodoros Angelopoulos (27 April 1935 – 24 January 2012), popularly known as Theo Angelopoulos, was a renowned Greek filmmaker, screenwriter and film producer. More Here.

The Greek film director Theo Angelopoulos, who has died aged 76 in a road accident, was an epic poet of the cinema, creating allegories of 20th-century Greek history and politics. He redefined the slow pan, the long take and tracking shots, of which he was a master. His stately, magisterial style and languidly unfolding narratives require some (ultimately rewarding) effort on the part of the spectator. "The sequence shot offers, as far as I'm concerned, much more freedom," Angelopoulos explained. "By refusing to cut in the middle, I invite the spectator to better analyse the image I show him, and to focus, time and again, on the elements that he feels are the most significant in it." The complete Theo Angelopoulos obituary in The Guardian.

Theo Angelopoulos, 1935-2012 at Mubi Notebook.

Theo Angelopoulos: his best films – in pictures in The Guardian.

The Suspended Step of the Stork in Strictly film school.

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