Theo Angelopoulos, Tonino Guerra,
Petros Markaris, Giorgio Silvagni,
Directors of Photography:
Giorgos Arvanitis, Andreas Sinanos
Running time: 176 minutes
Το βλέμμα του Οδυσσέα
To Vlemma tou Odyssea
Theo Angelopoulos has a very seductive visual style that often consists of very long takes and little dialogue, not unlike the work of Béla Tarr, but whereas Tarr uses mud, rain and small episodes presented as very long takes, Angelopoulos’s films are visually very clean, less episodic, and the long takes are fewer and farther between.
When a film isn’t episodic, in other words, when there is a macroplot rather than many microplots, then the overarching narrative better be worth the viewer’s time. In the case of Ulysses’ Gaze, an unnamed director (no, he does have a name: “A”) travels across the Balkan countries to locate three film reels of the first directors in the area, the Manakis brothers. The Manakis brothers worked there at the beginning of the 20th century, and their very first works, according to this film that rewrites history for the sake of drama, as many good films have done, are somewhere in the Balkans, waiting to be discovered. Why have they not been the object of more interest by the different film archives in the Balkans? The film doesn’t say.
A, played by Harvey Keitel, is a director who had grown up in the Balkans and does speak Greek, but who has spent most of his life in the USA, producing films that many Greeks, for whatever reason, deem extreme and even “evil”. He learns of the missing film reels and decides to undertake the journey to find these elusive traces of the origins of the Balkan cinema.
In the process, he travels across Greece, Albania, Bulgaria, Serbia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. The film’s title hints at an Odyssean dimension to the journey, but this is wishful thinking. At one point, he ferries a woman wearing a black cloak across the river, where they find the first signs of destruction in the former Yugoslavia, and of course this scene is meant to evoke the episode in Hades, either of them being Charon, but the metaphor is tenuous, if not altogether confusing.
He meets various women, all played by the same actress (Maia Morgenstern), but the roles and the acting are below standard as the actress frequently has to portray a woman who is drawn to A without knowing why, and more often than not breaks down in tears for no apparent reason.
No reason for A’s stubborn desire to find these missing reels is provided either, and yet he risks life and limb to track them down, all the way into a war zone. The film was made in the Balkans in 1994, so it’s not very difficult to guess which war I’m talking about, but even though we know that A is on his way to Sarajevo, but when he arrives in a big city that is completely devastated, building shots down to their skeletal remains, armoured UN vehicles, and people running down the streets to avoid sniper fire, A stops to ask these people, “Is this Sarajevo?” It is, of course, a question of identity, a theme that is relevant to the film, but the question seems ludicrous in the context and makes A seem rather thick-headed.
A is a very alienating figure, especially when he recites some of his lines like a grave incantation of some sort. The only moment where his character really seems human is around the halfway mark, when he meets an old friend on the banks of the Danube in Belgrade, who piggy-backs him for a few paces. For the rest of the film, A is a very serious character, who almost never smiles.
The film is interested in identity across the Balkans, and there are many scenes where the past slides in and out of the present, as characters change and seem to channel figures from the past. Angelopoulos is going for a kind of magical realism, I suppose, but he doesn’t tell the story very well and we are left with many questions and never get a firm grasp on A’s heritage.
The film does contain remarkable scenes staged so that they may be noticed as such, including a shot at the beginning of the film in which an audience watches A’s latest film, captivated, standing in the rain as if frozen, everyone in black clothes with identical black umbrellas over them. In another scene, in which A is transported back to the end of the Second World War in Bucharest, Romania, a single shot in the foyer of the family home suggests the passage of five years by means of different small events in the background.
Angelopoulos could have been a great filmmaker, if he had spent as much time cultivating his story as the staging of his images. At one point, an enormous statue of Lenin is transported in various pieces on a barge that goes upstream. We don’t know where the statue is headed, and for some strange reason Angelopoulos’s camera seems to worship the colossal monstrosity – even allowing it to face in the same direction as the barge, a strange choice indeed. Overall, the film is thin, plodding along through its more than two and a half hours, but the images are gorgeous. However, compared to his other important film, Eternity and a Day, I prefer the latter.
And one final note: For those who suspect me or the filmmakers of making a mistake: the possessive form of Ulysses is indeed Ulysses’ – without another possessive s, because it is a mythological/classical name. For all other names that end in an ‘s’, spelling depends on your chosen style (i.e. an apostrophe only, or an apostrophe and another ‘s’, are both valid).