Greek filmmaker Theo Angelopoulos’s 1995 film Ulysses’ Gaze (To Vlemma Tou Odyssea) is the first of that director’s four films that I have seen that is not unequivocally a great work of art. Yes, there are arguments that can be made in favor of that claim, but at 173 minutes in length, especially, it takes the most out of a viewer, especially considering that it’s the least poetic of his films I’ve seen (which include Landscape In The Mist, Eternity And A Day, and Trilogy: The Weeping Meadow). This does not mean it is a bad film, nor that it lacks Angelopoulos’s trademark visual poesy; it has that. But, there are some missing narrative elements, some poorly scripted moments, and a too slow dramatic movement, especially in the latter third of the film, which takes place in the city of Sarajevo.
The basic tale is that a nameless exiled Greek-American filmmaker, played by Harvey Keitel (and referred to as ‘A’ in the DVD credits, and in many reviews, although nowhere in the film is the character’s name mentioned), returns to the Balkans after thirty-five years, and is seeking to find three lost reels of footage from the earliest known extant Greek film, made by the Manakis Brothers (Yannakis and Miltos) in 1905. They seem to be near-mythic figures, who represent something akin to what D.W. Griffith was to American cinema, although they were documentarians, logging for decades the travails of the Balkans, and the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, in the first half of the Twentieth Century.
Keitel’s character seems to have more personal reasons for making this sojourn, and several possibilities are hinted at in flashback scenes, wherein Keitel simply wanders into his past, or a dream sequence involving the claimed death of one of the brothers. Keitel speaks mostly in English, while most of the other characters speak in Greek or the other native languages. The film does not rely on typical narrative to reveal Keitel’s quest, rather on a barrage of slowly developing images that subsumes the story into an emotional upwelling. Often, the camera of cinematographers Yorgos Arvanitis and Andreas Sinanos slowly pans ahead of Keitel, then back toward him, or pulls away from a scene, turns 90 or 180 degrees, then swivels back and peers even more deeply at whatever scene it just left, as if to signal that what seems the same is different, which pulls a viewer into a closer reckoning of stasis vs. change,
The best such scene takes place when Keitel visits, in flashback, with his mother, his old family home, in 1945. There he encounters long dead relatives, and banters as Auld Lang Syne is played on a piano. Soon, his father returns from the Second World War, and someone mentions it’s 1948. At first, it seems as if there was a typo in the English subtitles of the film. But, then someone mentions it’s 1950, and Communists come and clear out the room of furniture, even the piano. Song stops, and the extended family gathers for a photo, as time moves on. Keitel, who has wandered out of frame, is called back by his young and beautiful mother, and although Keitel’s voice answers her (in English, although he is called in Greek) a little Keitel look-alike boy enters frame, and the camera slowly focuses in on him till the scene ends silently.
That scene also probes one of the unspoken mysteries of the Keitel character- his relationship with assorted women, which seems to emanate from a rupture with his mother. Early on in the film, Keitel encounters a Greek film historian, with whom he seemingly has an affair. Then, he encounters a war widow (recall, this is the Balkans, mid-1990s), who conflates him with her dead husband, and they become lovers. Finally, he seems to connect with the daughter of Sarajevo’s local film archivist, Ivo Levy (Erland Josephson), who got possession of the three lost reels some years earlier, but could not get the right chemicals to develop them. Yet, like with all the other females, it is not certain how much takes place in the film’s inner reality, or within Keitel’s fantasies, for all of Keitel’s female protagonists are played by one actress, Maia Morgenstern, in different guises- even his mother.
His character’s sexuality is not the only place, however, where such an intermingling takes place. In the first scene of the film (another of those great scenes where the camera goes back and forth along a pier), an old man, who was Yannakis Manakis’s assistant, tells Keitel that, one afternoon in Salonika, Manakis had wanted to photograph a blue ship about to sail. We then see the two men, Manakis and the assistant, in front of the sea, on the pier. Yet, the assistant is not a young man, but who he is when the film changes from the past’s sepia to the modern color film, and tells Keitel the tale, merely by walking a few yards toward Keitel, as the ship sails off, as the camera follows. With a few simple, slow, horizontal movements of the camera, Angelopoulos shows how simple technique can weave a complex tale, with minimal voiceover dialogue from the assistant. This is also an example of great cinematography wherein the actual scenery is rather pedestrian. How many times have you read a critic praise a film’s cinematography, when all that is done is to let the camera shoot something that is, of itself, beautiful?
Another example of stellar cinematography comes when a disassembled statue of Vladimir Lenin is placed on a barge and floated down a river. Keitel ends up on board, but the homage to Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, where a statue of Christ, suspended by a helicopter, opens that film (as well as Angelopoulos’s earlier Landscape In The Mist, in which a sculpted hand rises out of a harbor) is manifest. However, unlike those films, the symbolism here is even more powerful, since most of the Balkans were just coming out from under the Iron Curtain’s pall, and Lenin represents a modern Ozymandias, especially, when lying on its back, on the barge, with its outstretched pointer finger aimed toward the heavens, with a muted irony that is delicious.
Eventually, after many dreamy sequences, the shooting in Sarajevo ends, when mist descends. After Levy discovers the right chemical formula to develop the reels, he and Keitel celebrate with a walk in the mist, and all but Keitel are gunned down. The violence takes place offscreen, and since Keitel does not react, we do not know if this is real, or if the Levy character, and the others, were simply inventions of his mind, to supply a narrative he feels is heroic enough for his quest for the film reels. Earlier in the film, a cab driver, who takes him from Greece to Albania, laments the three thousand year fall from grace of Greek culture, and a viewer is left with the impression that not only is Keitel in search of the reels and personal redemption, of some sort, but also- as the film’s title implies, his own place as a hagiographer of the Greek people, post-Classical times. Thus his recurring females all looking alike, as if plagued by a goddess of old, out to seduce and deceive him from his goals. Nonetheless, when he finally does react, and comes upon the dead bodies, Keitel wails, and the film ends with his soliloquy of grief. Yet, he now is in sole possession of the reels, and knows the formula, which suggests that his real interest was never the reels of film. How they tie in to his own quest for past memories is uncertain, and there is an air of self-delusion and disingenuity in his grief.
Keitel seems to be dreamily floating throughout much of the film, and this mostly works, save for a few too florid speeches. Josephson seems a bit hyperactive as the historian, Levy, but is passable, while Morgenstern gives perhaps the best performance, in multiple roles, even if some of the roles seem a bit too far out; likely due to Keitel’s character’s inner turmoils and desires. The DVD, put out in a Region 4 (Australian, not North American, format- unless you have a region free DVD player) DVD package by the Australian Madman Films, The Director’s Suite line, is stellar, and the equal of the best put out by Region 1 distributors like The Criterion Collection, Kino, or Anchor Bay. The imagery is crisp, clear, and in a 16:9 aspect ratio. And while it lacks an audio commentary, it does have the original theatrical trailer, as well as trailers for other classic films the company distributes. It also has a film gallery, and a very good essay in the film insert by film critic and historian Anne Rutherford. There is no English dubbed soundtrack, unfortunately, but the subtitles are in a highly readable gold, which should be standard for all subtitles.
Overall, this is a very good film. It also has a magnificently effective score by Eleni Karaindrou, especially with great viola passages by Kim Kashkashian, which seem almost organically part of Angelopoulos’s visuals. Angelopoulos’s film scores are perhaps the only ones which are the equal of the great Werner Herzog’s films. This film’s main flaws, however, lie in its screenplay. The film was penned by Angelopoulos, longtime Fellini and Angelopoulos collaborator Tonini Guerra, Giorgio Silvani, and Petros Markaris, but goes on a good 40 or so minutes too long. Some trimming of more pedestrian scenes by editor Yannis Tsitsopoulos, some neat Ozu-like elisions (which Angelopoulos makes expert use of in other films), and this film would have been a great film, if just shy of a masterpiece, due to several small forced moments of overacting, and soliloquies tinged lavender in their prose: ‘If I should but stretch out my hand I will touch you and time will be whole again,’ uttered by Keitel. The film came in second at the Cannes Film Festival that year, winning the Grand Prix, not the Palm D’Or, but it has taken a beating from some critics. In this country, the most virulent review came from none other than that noted lover of Spielbergian tripe, Roger Ebert, who among other things, wrote:
What’s left after Ulysses’ Gaze is the impression of a film made by a director so impressed with the gravity and importance of his theme that he wants to weed out any moviegoers seeking interest, grace, humor, or involvement….It is an old fact about the cinema- known perhaps even to those pioneers who made the ancient footage A is seeking- that a film does not exist unless there is an audience between the projector and the screen. A director, having chosen to work in a mass medium, has a certain duty to that audience. I do not ask that he make it laugh or cry, or even that he entertain it, but he must at least not insult its good will by giving it so little to repay its patience. What arrogance and self-importance this film reveals.
Would that Ebert was so assertive about the vomit that the many Hollywood schlockmeisters he praises put out. Yes, this film is not a laugh riot, but there are some humorous moments, such as Keitel’s interactions with an old Albanian woman he lets share a Greek cab with him. As for grace, interest, and involvement? Well, it’s there, even if it requires a bit of intellectual cogitation on the part of a viewer, something that most Americans (and American critics) are unwilling to give. This is best illustrated by an anecdote Keitel’s character tells, of taking a Polaroid photo of an olive tree that, when he watches develop, shows that the tree was not really there. Yet, we never see this anecdote’s stunning imagery play out; it’s only related via words, or the imagination, therefore all the more effective, in the way a great film like My Dinner With Andre is. Would that more people had that quality which Angelopoulos so manifestly owns, in the best moments of this work, and his other masterpieces; for then even flawed but excellent films like this would get their proper due.
[Originally posted at Alternative Film Guide]
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