In Memoriam – Theo Angelopoulos By Dan Fainaru
Theo Angelopoulos died on the set of his last film, The Other Sea in the late afternoon of January 24, 2012. The sun, whatever there was of it on that chilly winter day, was practically gone, the light was murky and grey and a misty shroud covered the port of Piraeus. He was walking backwards, lost in his thoughts, tracing the path the camera would take in his next shot. Retreating slowly, he never looked behind, immersed as he was in his own thoughts, visualizing the film which seemed more real than anything else around him. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a policeman riding his scooter rushes into the frame, that is the frame of real life, and hit him, as if the Angel of Death who had decided to take a hand in the proceedings. Was it really like this that it all happened? I don't really know, but I would like to think so, at least to make some sense out of this senseless, foolish, infuriating accident, make it look like an ominous sequence shot in an Angelopoulos film. I'd like to believe that in some sort of way, it fits into the existence of this extraordinary man, no doubt one of the greatest filmmakers of our times.
Theo Angelopoulos was born on April 27, 1935, in a middleclass family. He was supposed to become a lawyer, but quit to go to France and study cinema at what used to be at the time the most significant film school in the world, the Paris IDHEC (Institut de Hautes Etudes Cinematographiques). After one year, he was asked to take a walk, his conception of cinema considered unacceptable by some of the teachers. Rightly so, for he never thought cinema in the same terms as everybody else. Instead, under the protective gaze of the legendary Henri Langlois, he became an usher at the French Cinematheque, an unexpected chance for him to see all the classics which he dearly loved, without paying the admission, which anyway he could not afford at the time.
Back in Greece, he kept going to films and he wrote reviews for a publication named "Democratic Change", while trying to put together a never-released documentary on a band called the Forminx (1965). Then came his first feature, The Reconstitution (1970), and the world of cinema, certainly of Greek cinema was never the same. Black and white, shot in a mountain village in the north of the country, it was a police investigation into the murder of a Greek man working in Germany, who had come back home to visit his wife. Stark scenery, bare and arid landscape, cold winter lighting, gritty characters, a portrait of the economically devastated Greek countryside, already announcing not only some of the major themes Angelopoulos would explore for the rest of his life but also the complex film language he would further develop and employ in his later pictures. On the one hand, the state of his own homeland and the migratory syndrome, sending people away from their homes to chase the mirage of a better life elsewhere, on the other hand, the long, complex, breathtaking sequence shots, deep long breaths which kept the audience hanging on every turn and twist of the camera. That is, some of the audience, for the rest never could quite cope with his kind of fractured narrative that never told them all the details and God forbid, expected them to use their own imagination and fill in the gaps. Angelopoulos was already announcing his intention to trust the intelligence of his viewers, and their readiness to be active participants who would meet him halfway. And if they won't, so much the worse for them, he did not intend to change.
Next came his trilogy, Days of 36 (1972), The Travelling Players (1975) and The Hunters (1977), digging deeply into recent Greek history, the years preceding WW2, the war and the ensuing civil war and its tragic results. The Travelling Players, the trilogy's centerpiece in every sense of the word, confirmed Angelopoulos' unique position at the forefront of modern cinema, with its assured style, its sophisticated mixture of political observations and sheer poetry, breathtaking visual imagination and an entirely new way of telling a story. He looked at modern Greece as a reflection of its ancient myths, legends and history, the cursed tales of the house of Atreus and the shadow of Homer a constant reference in all his films, a 20th century echo of Euripides and Aeschylus.
Very much a man of his time, deeply rooted in the Greek soil, growing up in the midst of constant turmoil, never hiding his sympathy for the left and the necessity of a revolution that would change the face of the world, Angelopoulos was for a while one of those who looked eastward for the emergence of new gospels. But by the time he made O Megalexandros (1980), the story of a failed peasant revolt and its fiery leader, he was beginning to waver, shocked by the corrupting effect of power which shattered the best-intentioned principles. Voyage to Cythera (1984) and The Beekeeper (O melissokomes, 1986), were both heartbreaking portraits of idealists deprived of their ideals, Landscape in the Mist (1988) offered a desolate image of Greece helplessly seeking its salvation elsewhere. The Suspended Step of the Stork (1991) clearly announced the theme that was to preoccupy him for the rest of his life: the vast, ever-growing masses of refugees, victims of political upheavals and economic catastrophes, homeless, nationless crowds looking for a shelter they are consistently denied. With Ulysses' Gaze (1995) he fully crossed the borders out of his own homeland and put to sleep, once and for all, his communist illusions in the magnificent funeral cortege of Lenin's statue prostrate on a Danube barge, and painted the war-torn Balkans in all their misery. Many believed the film deserved Cannes' Golden Palm, Jeanne Moreau's jury that year thought otherwise, but at least the festival paid its dues the next time around, when Eternity and a Day (1998) got the main award.
In The Weeping Meadow (2004) and the following The Dust of Time (2008) (two parts of a trilogy that was never completed), Angelopoulos summed up the entire 20th century, in his own way, painting not only personal despair, anguish and tragedies, but also the ideological calamities which shook the world through it. The Other Sea was supposed to be his first glimpse at the Third Millenium and its moral conundrums and again, no silver lining to the numerous clouds in sight, either.
But if ideas can be expressed in words, there is another dimension in Theo Angelopoulos' films that goes much further, those magic moments of pure emotion which no words can describe, recurring again and again, a poetry of the image in time that very few, if any other filmmaker, achieved. An old man and an old woman on a raft drifting away from the shore in Voyage to Cythera, a shocking, silent rape scene, where all you see is the back of a truck and yet you know exactly what's going on in Landscape in the Mist, the ceasefire in the fog in Ulysses' Gaze, the bus ride in Eternity and the Day, the flight from the flooded villages in The Weeping Meadow, Michel Piccoli entering a Berlin bar at one end and coming out, years later, at the other end, all in one shot, in The Dust of Time. Disparate, random choices out of countless examples, for every Angelopoulos sequence shot was a unique event on its own. Shortly before he died, the great Russian cellist, musician an humanist Mstislav Rostropovich said death doesn't worry him, for he knows that his dear friends Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Britten will be waiting for him on the other side. Hopefully, Theo Angelopoulos is now discussing the affairs of this world and the next one, with his dear Kurosawa and Antonioni. He hasn't lost that much, we have.
© FIPRESCI 2012
Archived on: 22/02/2012 - 17:53:33