Filmmaker Retrospective: The Historical Cinema of Theo Angelopoulos

Greek Film Director Theo Angelopoulos

The films of Theo Angelopoulos—the most renowned Greek filmmaker to date—are slow, meditative, and melancholic. The films often run exceptionally long—up to almost four hours—with extended shots that can last up to ten minutes without a single cut. As tedious as these initial descriptions seem, why should one watch his films?

Once (and if) anyone gets used to his style, he or she becomes addicted to his films. Each frame of an Angelopoulos film is like a huge canvas of hauntingly beautiful, lucid painting in watercolour. His films are set on the bleak, cold, misty and often rain-lashed backdrop of North Greece, and the narratives unfold in a deliciously languid pace through slow, sweeping (and often 360 degree) pans, tracking shots, and long takes.

Like Gabriel Garcia Márquez does in his 1967 novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Angelopoulos weaves in different time frames and places them into one narrative. The filmmaker also shifts gear between the past and the present and between two places, using one single long shot, which liberates his films from the shackle of “here and now.”
A master of Brechtian detachment elements, Angelopoulos’s fondness for certain filmic techniques, such as the God’s eye view shots, stylized and choreographed scenes, and preference of long shots over close-ups makes him an auteur’s auteur.

However, it is not just Angelopoulos who makes his films so distinct. Much of the credit is shared among his frequent collaborators, Yorgos Arvanitis, his cameraman and a master of those really long takes; Eleni Karaindrou, who composes the hauntingly elegiac background score; and, of course, screenwriter Tonino Guerra.

Angelopoulos’s films deal with many issues, such as: borders between countries and immigration; the societal deconstruction of and adverse effect on Greek villages post World War II and Civil War; and political instability in the Balkan region. The director’s films also explore the dismal living condition of ordinary people under both Right-wing and Stalinist regimes, and the country’s inability to incorporate its past into the present. The filmmaker’s stories are often about journeys of men who find themselves strangers in their own country.

Thus, history, landscape, myth, contemporary, and past political events serve as the backdrop of his stories and at times even become the central character. Like in the films of Luchino Visconti, Carlos Saura, Andrzej Wajda the history of the nation plays an important role in Angelopoulos’s films. He often puts miniscule human figures on the backdrop of a vast landscapes suggesting man’s helplessness while confronting the great forces of nature and also his insignificance in the greater scheme of things.

Also, much like in the works of Michelangelo Antonioni, the landscape becomes a character in Angelopoulos’s films, which often reflect the mood of the scene or adding a symbolic angle—at times the landscape even faces the camera alone.

The ten Angelopoulos films are entered in no particular order. When one is watching, he or she must not that these films are not meant for a hurried viewing. For optimum results, VIEWERS MUST WATCH ON A BIG SCREEN.


1. Reconstruction (1970)

Reconstruction (1970)

Based on a real incident and developed as a homage to Kurasoawa’s Rashomon, Angelopoulos’s first full-length feature is a straightforward story of a crime of passion (that parallels Agamemnon’s murder by Clytemnestra and Aegisthus) and is set in a Greek village. After many years of being away, a man returns to his house and is murdered by his wife (Eleni) and her lover (Christos).

Both the accused are caught and they eventually confess. However, the actual act is never shown. What the viewers see are reconstructions or versions of the crime—by Eleni, Christos, and several journalists—as part of a social documentary, not to mention a reconstruction of the real events by the director himself to script the film.

The film ends where it began—it cuts back to the man crossing the fields, walking towards his home. More than reconstruction, Angelopoulos deconstructs the murder in this film-within-a-film. Although it is a story of crime, the film is not a film noir, as suggested by many, but a social commentary that reflects his “weltanschauung” (or philosophy of life).

Shot in high-contrast black and white, the film shows the change in the value system with the breakdown of economy, and villages once throbbing with life being reduced to a necropolis of broken dreams. In Angelopoulos’s own words, Reconstruction is “an elegy for a land rotting away, abandoned by its inhabitants.”

Although it is a quintessential Angelopoulos film at heart, and opens with a single long shot of a bleak, rain-smudged landscape that was to become his trademark, stylistically the film doesn’t quite predict the path he was to follow. The film includes, however, almost everything his later films do not: a sharp documentary tone, interspersing voiceovers, constant timeframe shifts, ambiguous flashbacks, and the overall structure of uncertainty. These antitheses brands Reconstruction an important film.


2. The Travelling Players (1975)

The Travelling Players (1975)

Arguably his best work, the film dwells upon the theme of displacement and migration. The film follows an acting troupe repeatedly trying to stage a play, Golpho the Shepherdess. Each time, however, it is interrupted by some historic event or the other. Set between 1939 and 1952, the film takes us through the pro-monarchy Metaxas dictatorship (1936–1941), the German occupation of Athens during World War II (1941–1944), and the Greek Civil War (1944–1949)—one of the most turbulent times in Greek history.
However, this Angelopulos masterpiece is not for everyone. Greece’s official entry into the Oscars, the four-hour-long film comprises of mere 80 shots. Moreover, if one is not used to his style, this austerity of shots might seem overstretched, self-indulgent, and pretentious. Nevertheless, it is these painstakingly crafted set pieces that lend this film its unique charm.

The film boasts some of the best examples of long shots and mise-en-scene—two devices the director profusely experimented with all through his career. One such scene is when the players move into the past by taking a long walk down a street, and it is done in one single shot. In another scene, the camera tracks a group of men leaving a New Year’s party.

The seven-minute shot captures their transformation from merrymaking right-wing supporters to true-blue fascists, which merges with gathering crowd celebrating the victory of Alexandros Papagos. The time travel in this single shot is from 1946 to 1952!

There are no protagonists here and hardly any close-ups, as men are seen as part of groups and these groups become part of the landscape. This characterization emphasizes the fact that men, as individuals, are part of a larger design; they are part of their surroundings, their history.

The film also has some brilliant use of monologues which are part of the play, but at the same time they are commentaries on the contemporary socio-political situation of the country. In a masterstroke, the director contemporizes Aeschylus’s Oresteia trilogy and parallels between the ancient myth of the family of Agamemnon and the recent Greek political history.


Trilogy of Silence


3. Voyage to Cythera (1984)

Voyage to Cytheria (1984)

Alexander, a middle-aged filmmaker (Giulio Brogi) is on a shooting break when he stumbles upon an old man, Spyros (Manos Katrakis). Spyros just returned to Greece from a 32-year-long political and is greatly disillusioned by the Greece’s state of affairs.

The country to which he returned is hardly the one in which he grew up; Spyros is virtually a stranger to this new Greece, as well as his family. He gropes to make peace with reality and at the end sets sail again, probably in a last bid to find his Cythera—a mythical island of dreams. In the parting shot, the camera pulls back slowly as his raft almost merges with the horizon.

In the first installment of the Science Trilogy, Angelopoulos modernizes Homer’s Odyssey. In Voyage to Cythera, Alexander resembles Telemachus. In Homer’s epic, Telemachus chronicles the tale of his father Ulysses. The return of Spyros to his homeland aptly parallels the aging Ulysses, who returns to Ithaca after a decade-long Trojan War (only to set sail again). For both Spyros and Ulysses, the homecoming was not the end but a beginning of a new journey.

It is never truly revealed whether Alexander—who was abandoned by his father—thinks Spyros to be his father, or this old man is just a story for his next film. It is known, however, that Spyros is character who also happens to be the name of Angelopoulos’s father, and the Spyros character represents almost all of the father figures in Angelopoulos’s films.

Angelopoulos, once again, uses the film-within-a-film structure to interweave a personal tale of disillusionment and alienation with socio-political commentary of the Civil War-ravaged Greece. It discusses a rapidly changing country, crumbling of old social structures, and the deconstruction of the villages in the name of development.

In the film, Spyros is a representative of the country’s Communist past—a past Greece cannot incorporate into its present. The film’s desperate bid to shake away its past finds a human voice when a villager shouts: “Spyros, you’re dead. A ghost. You don’t exist.”

Though content is similar, Voyage to Cythera drifts away from the sweeping scale of the filmmaker’s preceding triptych of films—Days of 36, The Travelling Players and The Hunters–which are long contemplative studies in modern Greek history. Voyage to Cythera—which won the FIPRESCI Prize and the best screenplay award at 1984 Cannes Film Festival—includes a smaller canvas and a more intimate approach than the director’s aforementioned films.


4. The Beekeeper (1986)

The Beekeeper (1986)

This was Angelopoulos’s first collaboration with Marcello Mastroianni, and the legendary actor gives a soulful performance as Spyros—the stoic middle-aged schoolmaster turned beekeeper. After the marriage of his daughter, Spyros leaves (with his beehive) on a pollen trail that leads him to his birthplace. On his way, he meets a feisty, young hitchhiker (Nadia Mourouzi). After initially despising her, Spyros becomes attracted to this beautiful girl (who is almost half his age!).

The film represents the fluctuating relationship between of two polar opposites. Spyros is a worn-out school teacher, and the girl is a blithe-spirit adolescent. The old one looks backward, as he tries to keep up with his family business of beekeeping. The girl, on the other hand, looks for quick gratification of her desires. The two characters, nevertheless, serve as the centrepiece of this self-discovery story.

Angelopoulos, however, is more introspective in this film than the other installments of his Science Trilogy. The concepts of history, myth, socio-political issues, and the autobiographical tone—which all encompass the fabric on which he usually weaves his stories—barely exist in The Beekeeper. It is story of Spyros’s personal journey, the ultimate resignation to fate, and the tumultuous struggle between old and new ideas.


5. Landscape in the Mist (1988)

Landscape in the Mist (1988)

The last film of Angelopoulos Trilogy of Silence is also his most sublime one. Landscape in the Mist is a coming of age story of a brother-sister duo—the 11-year-old Voula and the 5-year-old Alexander. The two young siblings leave the security of their home to embark on a dangerous journey through the “landscape in the mist” in search of their father.

It is a pursuit for the unattainable, as early on the audience realizes that this “father” doesn’t really exist. The children’s innocence is shattered as they face the cold and merciless world. They survive, however, and the film ends with the two, at night, crossing a river border and finding what may be their “Elysium.” The dazzling image of hope—perhaps Angelopoulos’s best shot at optimism—conveys the duo reaching the opposite side. Here, the mist rises from the landscape, and an outline of a single large tree emerges on the horizon.

For the first time, the depressing muted browns, blues, and greys give way to robust bright green. The children run up and embrace it. Is this the end of their journey? Have they found the tree of life? Does it symbolize a father figure? The director leaves it up to the viewer’s interpretation.

What makes the film different from the other coming-of-age stories is the fact that it—much like author John Bunyan’s 1678 novel, The Pilgrim’s Progress—is a quest for spiritual enlightenment. It is also a road movie, albeit a metaphysical one shrouded in allegory. Some even interpret it as Greece’s emergence from the dark years under the regime of the military junta.