Monday, May 25, 2009

Ulysses' Gaze (To vlemma tou Odyssea) A Film by Theodoros Angelopoulos (1995)

Becoming enraptured by the elegiac beauty that permeates Theodoros Angelopoulos' Ulysses' Gaze is not a difficult task. Unraveling its dense symbology and digesting the barrage of thematic material that Angelopoulos fires at the audience however, is. Of course, there is a wealth of conceptual ideas that do hit home with ease, most notably the congruence of Harvey Keitel's search for primitive film footage shot by the Manakis brothers (the first ever reels of Balkan film) to the odyssey of Homer. Keitel, playing a Greek filmmaker coming back to his homeland after 35 years in America, wanders from Greece to Sarajevo while being consistently haunted by memories or ghostly relics of the past: his loves (or perhaps, singular), all played by Maia Morgenstern, his family, the colleagues of the Mannakis brothers themselves, and the primordial, undeveloped footage of observational cinema that the Mannakis brothers recorded - their first "gaze" at the world.

Angelopoulos sanctions the idea of time as a continuum, of the past always being relevant to social and cultural identity in the present and frequently being the source of irreparable damage. That damage is evident in Angelopoulos' subjective view of Greece and of the surrounding nations: cold, wintry, foggy, dilapidated, and ugly. Scattered refugees limp through the barren terrain, the "snow and silence", Keitel calls it, in one of the film's most mournful travel sequences. He frequently converses in the film with people who speak of the problematic, irresolvable nature of the Balkans, that although the country converted to nationalism, it cannot escape the communism of the Eastern bloc. A gargantuan statue of Lenin is carried downriver with Keitel seated beside it (reminiscent of the hand in Landscape in the Mist), standing in as figurative proof. This is the most ceaselessly nagging metaphor in Ulysses' Gaze. Angelopoulos hangs on it for so long that he undermines the inherent hands-off approach of his meditative style to begin with; in such instances, the technique becomes as manipulative as a frenetically edited action picture. There are several times when Angelopoulos' long-take mastery feels portentous and exhaustive, such as when Keitel's character surveys the passing years of his family's New Year's party; in one static shot, the family waltzes from 1945 to 1950, an interesting idea at its root but which comes off as tedious.

Despite these occasional bouts of self-indulgence though, the film, as an elegy on the dissolution of geographical identity (Keitel stomps over borders with little perceivable distinction), has a magnificently sorrowful, dreamlike beauty. Ruins hold mysteries undiscovered, such as the rundown cinema that holds the Mannakis reels which is located in the midst of the Yugoslavian war that the filmmaker travels through. In one transfixing shot, the camera moves from Keitel's somber glance past the dirty screen to reveal snow falling outside a hole in the wall above it. Two other memorable scenes stand out: early in the film, Keitel follows a woman he believes he once knew through the shadowy streets of Greece only to be sandwiched by a crowd of torch bearers and another of policeman and civilians holding umbrellas. Towards the end, following Keitel's direct exposure to wartime horror, which felt disjointed and lacked the emotional punch it intended for, a small orchestra and children's choir plays in a frost-bitten park to a frozen audience. Although it is never as emotionally devastating as his masterpiece, Landscape in the Mist, Ulysses' Gaze is worth experiencing for these kinds of transcendent pleasures.

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