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Theo Angelopoulos loved his country deeply and honored it by transporting it all over the world.

Theo Angelopoulos obituary Film director with a magisterial style who excelled at historical and political allegories

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."

Theo Angelopoulos in 1986.
Angelopoulos was born in Athens, where he studied law. After military service, he went to Paris to attend the Sorbonne but soon dropped out to study at the IDHEC film school (now known as La Fémis). Back in Greece, he worked as a film critic for the leftist daily Allagi, which was closed down by the military junta that came to power in 1967. The seven-year regime of "the colonels" was seared into his consciousness and remained a subject – overtly or subliminally – throughout his oeuvre.

His elliptical style was born partly out of the restrictive atmosphere of the epoch during which he managed to make his first feature, Reconstruction (1970). Shot in spare, high-contrast black and white, it was about a Greek migrant worker who returns from Germany and is murdered by his wife and her lover. It was immediately clear that the director was less interested in the crime story than the ideological, individual and collective implications of the murder inquiry.

Angelopoulos then emerged on the international scene with his impressive historical triptych, Days of '36 (1972), The Travelling Players (1975) and The Hunters (1977), the most ambitious Greek films to date. Shot by Giorgos Arvanitis, the cinematographer on almost all of Angelopoulos's films, they are long, contemplative studies of modern Greek history.

Days of '36, based on actual events, tells of a man arrested for the murder of a trade unionist. Protesting his innocence, he holds a politician hostage in his cell, threatening to kill the man, and himself, unless he is released. The film subtly undermined the military regime in its portrayal of official incompetence. Given its physical confines, and the fact that the prisoner remains out of sight for much of the time, the high level of tension is a real achievement.

In The Travelling Players, set in 1952, a troupe of actors recall Greek political history and their own personal histories since they last visited the country, in 1939. Nearly four hours long, the film consists of just 131 shots, allowing the audience time to assess the situation rationally. The Hunters follows the eponymous group across a snowy mountainside in northern Greece as they come across the body of a Greek guerrilla fighter killed in 1949. At the subsequent inquest, each member of the group, as well as various peasants and workers, speaks of his experience of the civil war and the years that followed. Shot in pastel shades, the film slowly unravels the various strands in this inquisition of the right, using dream, memory and fantasy, and the powerful symbol of the corpse as the silent accuser.

In Voyage to Cythera (1984), the first of what Angelopoulos called the "trilogy of silence", an old man who fought with the communists during the civil war returns to Greece after more than 30 years' exile in the Soviet Union. He attempts to come to terms with his country and his wife and family, whom he hardly knows. The second, The Beekeeper (1986), was the first of Angelopoulos's films to use well-known actors, in this case Marcello Mastroianni as a morose, retired schoolteacher who sets off on a trip around the beehive sites of Greece, picking up an enigmatic young female hitchhiker on the way.

This compelling film could be called a metaphysical road movie, as could Landscape in the Mist (1988), the third in the sequence and the first of his films to feature children. Here, a 14-year-old girl and her little brother embark on a journey to find their father, whom they believe to be in Germany. In fact, it is an existential odyssey, a voyage towards the unattainable.

Harvey Keitel starred in Ulysses' Gaze (1995) as another character who returns to Greece from exile. He is a film-maker, back from the US, seeking some lost reels of films made by two famous Greek film-makers during the silent era. The film won the grand jury prize at Cannes. Uncharacteristically, Angelopoulos expressed his disappointment that it did not win the Palme d'Or. He told a shocked and suddenly silent audience: "If this is what you have to give me, I have nothing to say," before walking off the stage without even posing for pictures.

Cannes made amends three years later when Eternity and a Day (1998) won the festival's top prize. The film is a philosophical meditation about a dying writer, played by Bruno Ganz, and his thoughts on family, art and mortality. Angelopoulos executes the transition between present and past brilliantly, gliding easily between uncertain reality and nostalgia.

The Weeping Meadow (2004) was the first of what Angelopoulos planned as a trilogy. The mytho-poetic dimension of the film – a magical fusion of colours, sounds, music and images which expresses the deepest feelings surrounding life and death – is linked, as usual, to a strong political and social context. The film spans 30 years of Greek history, from the exodus of the Greek colony in Odessa under the threat of the Red Army in 1919 to the end of the civil war in 1949.

The Dust of Time (2008) covered the second part of the 20th century, venturing outside Greece for the first time. The Greek-German-Italian-Russian co-production, mainly in English, had all the makings of a Europudding, albeit one made by a master chef. Not all these fears were allayed. The Dust of Time is a fin-de-siècle drama, a cry of pain derived from the wounds inflicted during the previous century.

Angelopoulos's latest film, The Other Sea, was to be about Greece's financial crisis. While filming in Athens' main port, Piraeus, he was in collision with a motorcycle as he crossed a road. He died later in hospital.

He is survived by his wife, Phoebe, and three daughters.

• Theodoros Angelopoulos, film director, born 27 April 1935; died 24 January 2012

Ronald Bergan, Wednesday 25 January 2012 16.00 GMT
Archived on: 03/02/2012 - 10:32:13