Dir. Theo Angelopoulos. Greece/France/Italy/Germany, 2004. 178mins.
This majestic three hour-long epic, possibly the most abstract in Theo Angelopoulos' career, is unlikely to affect his position either in the eyes of ardent admirers, who consider him one of the last modernists in cinema, nor in the opinion of his detractors, who have always claimed his films are over-long, under-narrated, pretentiously artistic and ultimately soporific.
The first chapter of an intended trilogy which will cover all of the 20th century, The Weeping Meadow focuses on a theme close to Angelopoulos' heart, that of dislocated minorities wandering the world and trying to find a place they can call home. It is the kind of film that makes no concessions and accepts no compromises in its choice of emblematic scenes, handpicked by the director for impressionistic rather than narrative reasons, as he takes the audience from 1919 to 1949.
His work is a welcome respite from the blunt Hollywood-style in-your-face expediency which seems to be taking over world cinema, regardless of nationality, religion or race. Instead Angelopoulos employs long takes which last for several minutes, carefully mapped travelling patterns, stunning images (each a museum piece), savant use of sound and silence, an obsessively evocative musical score and meticulously choreographed layouts of every scene.
No festival programme in the coming year will feel complete without The Weeping Meadow, nor will any art cinema miss the chance to highlight it - but don't expect to see it in the Top 10 box office lists of too many territories.
Angelopoulos' first feature since Eternity And A Day, which won the Palme D'Or at Cannes in 1998, The Weeping Meadow premiered in competition at Berlin. But it is far removed in pace, style, breath and purpose from any of the conventional commercial cinema samples at the Berlinale, and as such is near impossible to compare with the rest of the films in competition. The only possible reference is to Angelopoulos' own earlier pictures, inevitably echoed since some covered the same grounds in modern Greek history, particularly The Day Of 36 and The Traveling Players.
As usual in Angelopoulos films, the starting point is classic Greek tragedy, in this case partly Oedipus Rex, partly its historical sequel, Seven Against Thebes. Both are worked into the fabric of the last century's history, one that was ravaged by wars, deportations, cataclysms and political disasters, in the process generating masses of homeless refugees and emigrants seeking sanctuary.
The central figure is Eleni (Alexandra Aidini), whose personal tragedy embodies the drama of the century. Born in Odessa on the eve of the Russian revolution, she is adopted by a Greek family who brings her to Greece. There she bears twins, while still an adolescent, to her adoptive brother (Nikos Poursanidis) with whom she later elopes later on her wedding night to her widowed adoptive father (Vassilis Kolovos).
Hiding in Thessaloniki from the old man's wrath, the young couple is taken under the wing of a group of travelling musicians who admire the boy's talent on the accordion and the twins are retrieved from the childless couple to whom they had been entrusted.
But when the occasional concerts that put bread on the table become scarce, so Eleni is forced to accept a temporary separation, as accordionist joins an ethnic band on a tour to America, from which he will never be able to return. Caught harbouring a fugitive from justice after the popular uprising of 1936, she is thrown in jail, only to find out on release that her twins have been both killed, fighting on opposite sides during the civil war.
But it is behind the scenes of this story, whose details have to be guessed at between the lines, that one has to look for the real film. It comes in in the impetuosity and inventiveness of each sequence, usually consisting of one shot that ostensibly provides the background for the plot but is actually its main feature.
When the film opens we see the Odessa refugees coming up onto the shores of Thessaloniki, with Angelopoulos providing a voiceover. We are then witness to a spectacular presentation of the refugee village, as the camera tracks an approaching horse-cart that drives through the settlement and reaches the river, on which is moored a boat carrying a young girl and her chaperones. The passengers disembark, climb onto the waiting cart and drive across the village to their destination.
No real film buff could help admiring the mastery of such an exploit. The same also goes for the sequence showing the village flooded by torrents from the surrounding mountains, with boats carrying the homeless inhabitants silently among the tops of the submerged houses. Or there is the scene in which a grand theatre is converged into a refugee camp, each balcony box a room to shelter a few more exiles. Then there is the striking image of a dried-up tree with a slaughtered sheep hanging from each branch, the kind of vision that remains imprinted in memory for a long time.
The main complaint that is likely to emerge here is that Angelopoulos does not sufficiently refresh his lexicon, with symbols like water, trees or trains frequently thrown in. Critics may also point out that he gives in once in a while to cliches, as when we see white sheets spread out on the riverbank, a breath-taking sight that begs for someone or something to soil them - as happens soon enough.
The notion of two brothers fighting on opposite sides' fronts, painfully evident but here with just reason, is also picked straight out of Aeschylus' tragedy Seven Against Thebes.
Praising the exquisite quality of Andreas Sinanos' cinematography or Eleni Karaindrou's insistently repetitive soundtrack is almost self-evident, given their previous superlative contributions to Angelopoulos' oeuvre.
But the Angelopoulos films need a very strong acting personality, given the circumspect distance the camera keeps from them most of the time - and neither of his two young performers here is quite up to the task. The only one whose charisma fills the screen and lights it up every time he appears is Giorgos Armenis, who takes a supporting role as the leader of the travelling musicians. As such he is probably closest to representing the author's alter ego, an essential role in most Angelopoulos films.
Prod cos: Theo Angelopoulos. Greek Film Center, ERT, Attica Art Productions, BAC Films, Intermedias, Arte France
Int'l sales: Celluloid Dreams
Prod: Phoebe Economopoulos
Scr: Theo Angelopoulos with Tonino Guerra, Petros Markaris, Giorgio Silvagni
Cinematography: Andreas Sinanos
Ed: Giorgos Triantafyllou
Prod des: Giorgos Patsas, Costas Dimitriadis
Costumes: Ioulia Stavridou
Music: Eleni Karaindrou
Sound: Marinos Athanassopoulos
Main cast: Alexandra Aidini, Nikos Poursanidis, Giorgos Armenis, Vassilis Kolovos, Eva Kotamanidou, Toula Stathopoulou, Michalis Yannatos, Thalia Argyriou Grigoris Evangelatos