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To Vlemma Tou Odyssea

TO VLEMMA TOU ODYSSEA



(Ulysses' Gaze)


Greece-France-Italy, 1995


Director: Theo Angelopoulos

Production: Istitua Lice (Italy), La generale d'images, La Sept Cinéma, and Paradis Films (France), Basic Cinematografica, and Greek National Film Center; color; 35 mm; running time: 177 minutes; language: Greek, Albanian, Macedonian, Romanian, Bulgarian, English, and French. Released in Greece, June 1995, and in the United States, November 1997. Filmed during the Fall of 1994 and the Winter of 1994/95 in an improvised studio near the Belgrade airport; some scenes shot on location in Florina and Thessaloniki, Greece, Mostar, Bosnia, Vukovar, Croatia, Bucharest and Constanca, Romania, and Belgrade, Serbia.

Producer: Phoebe Economopoulos (executive), Eric Heumann, Giorgio Silvagni; screenplay: Theo Angelopoulos and Tonino Guerra with Petros Markaris; photography: Yorgos Arvanitis with Andreas Sinanos; editor: Yannis Tsitsopoulos; production designer: Miodrag Mile Nikolic, Giorgos Patsas, Yorgos Patsas; sound: Thanassis Arvanitis; Bernard Leroux; costumes: Giorgos Ziakas; original music: Eleni Karaindrou.

Cast: Harvey Keitel (A.); Maia Morgenstern (Ulysses' wife and other female roles); Erland Josephson (Ivo Levi); Thanassis Vengos (taxi driver); Yorgos Michalakopoulos (friend in Belgrade); Dora Volanaki (old woman); and others.


Awards: Grand Jury Prize and FIPRESCI Award, Cannes International Film Festival, 1995; FIPRESCI Award, European Film Awards, 1995.


Publications


Books:

Horton, Andrew, The Films of Theo Angelopoulos: A Cinema ofContemplation. Princeton, New Jersey, 1997.

Horton, Andrew, editor, The Last Modernist: The Films of TheoAngelopoulos. Westport, Connecticut, 1997.


Articles:

Maslin, Janet, "Two Films on Strife in Balkans Win Top Prizes at Cannes," in New York Times, 29 May 1995.

Stevens, Julie, "Ulysses' Gaze," in Empire (London), March 1996.

Rosenbaum, Jonathan, "Ulysses' Gaze," in Chicago Reader (Chicago), 18 October 1996.

Portuges, Catherine, "Ulysses' Gaze," in American Historical Review (Washington, D.C.), vol. 101, no. 4, October 1996.

Maslin, Janet, "Ulysses' Gaze," in New York Times, 17 January 1997.


* * *

Greek director Theo Angelopoulos, best known for his 1979 The Traveling Players (O Thiassos), has always been preoccupied with the complex issues of Greek history and politics. In the 1990s, he widened his interest and became interested in Balkan-wide issues, which found expressions in his films of the decade—The Suspended Step of the Stork (1991), Ulysses' Gaze (1995), and the Canneswinner Eternity and a Day (1998). The characters in these films are all involved in painful, introspective journeys and confront issues of distorted harmony, irrecoverable identities, and fin-de-siècle sadness. The director's characteristic atmosphere—lonely wandering through a misty landscape—prevails throughout. Angelopoulos daringly claims that universal identity problems lurk within his peculiar Balkan universe, and raises issues of displacement and lost homelands. He endows the idiosyncratic Balkan problems with a universal humanistic dimension, far beyond the geopolitical intricacies that dominate the approaches of other Balkan filmmakers. Ulysses' Gaze is exclusively preoccupied with the problems of historical reconstruction and personal remembrance. The film, co-scripted by the legendary European screenwriter Tonino Guerra, carries out a nostalgic reconstruction of peaceful and colorful ethnic cohabitation at the Balkan crossroads between Orient and Occident. The narrative of the film breaks away from the linear not only time-wise, but also spatially, providing an ultimately subjective account of a personal experience of history and regionality.

The protagonist, a successful American film director named "A." (Harvey Keitel), has returned to visit his native Greece after 35 years of exile. During his brief sojourn, he hears of several film reels, now missing, shot early in the century by the legendary brothers Miltos and Yannis Manaki, who are considered patriarchs of filmmaking in the Balkan region and who lived all around the Balkans in the first half of the century, mostly in Macedonia, Bulgaria, and Greece, and made films about the region.

The memory of happy multicultural co-existence is presumably recorded on the Manaki's missing reels. A. sets off to search for the footage, and gradually grows obsessed with the belief that tracking it down and restoring it is the key to overcoming the confrontations in the Balkans. In a pensive and melancholy journey, he travels across the bleak Balkans winter, searching not only for the footage but for his own roots as well. The journey takes him on a winding road—from Greece to Albania, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, and, finally, to Sarajevo in today's Bosnia. While some of these places are explored in their present-day dimensions, others figure in the film only as memory sites of distant times and events, now called back into the mind of the protagonist.

As well as travel in space, there is travel in time. A.'s personal memories define an episode that develops in his childhood home and spans several years, starting in 1945 and running to the mid-1950s, within a sequence that lasts only a few minutes. Each minute of screen time seems to equal a year, an approach which Angelopoulos used before in his famous Traveling Players.

All historical explorations of the mind are referenced to the present, however. The ending point of the journey is besieged Sarajevo, where, among the shelling, A. finally finds the lost footage and the man who is able to give him access to the cherished image— Ivo Levi, the old Jewish film curator who has revealed the secret of the reels (Erland Josephson). The two men have finally found each other in this kingdom of war, and are both relaxed because now, it seems, they have all the time on Earth. They go out for a walk in the foggy but peaceful day, not suspecting that only minutes later Levi will be taken away and shot, without A. being able to react. He cries helplessly. So soon after the ultimate moment of tranquillity with Ivo Levi, he is once again alone and helpless, confronted with the absurdity of death.

By the end of the film, A. has found and seen the revered footage. But it does not matter any longer. Whatever may have been on these tapes cannot compensate for the feeling of profound dejection. The film has been about the desire to, and the impossibility of, recognizing one's own true self. By the time A. reaches what he is searching for, so much has happened and so many illusions are destroyed, that he no longer believes that the secrets of the past hold the key to harmony. Ulysses' Gaze is a deconstruction of self-perceptions and identity believed to be firmly rooted in space and time. Nothing can be certain anymore. Even if one is willing to adopt a conditional identity, the choice is easily invalidated. The nostalgia for lost roots is meaningless, and all that remains is the longing for something that cannot be attained. In the context of this existential pessimism, the Balkan troubles are seen as the problems of the world, as a part of the tiresome recognition of its deterioration.

Angelopoulos always preferred to discuss history as lived in personal destinies, and by the time he matured to make Ulysses' Gaze, he had created the prefect cinematic language that allowed him to talk of an individual experience of history as superseding time and space. The remarkable use of elaborately manipulated long shots enables the narrative to include complex and magnificent subtleties. The mostly hand-held camera of cameraman Yorgos Arvanitis moves very slowly and is often positioned in such a way that it reveals actions taking place in different semantic layers of the screen space. The events lose their objectivity and are constructed through the gaze of the onlooking protagonist. Older historical interpretations intersect with the perceived significance of newer ones.

Angelopoulos was disappointed when the Golden Palm at Cannes in 1995 went to Emir Kusturica's Underground rather than to his Ulysses' Gaze. Nonetheless, he received the Golden Palm for his next film, Eternity and a Day (1998). This later film, however, is nothing more than a compendium of Angelopoulos's image inventory, and can hardly be considered superior to Ulysses' Gaze.

—Dina Iordanova

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