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The Last Modernist: The Films of Theo Angelopoulos edited by Andrew Horton

Consisting of a series of critical essays and Andrew Horton’s interview on the distinctive imagery, cultural influences, and the filmmaker’s own personal, spiritual, and intellectual preoccupations, The Last Modernist: The Films of Theo Angelopoulos presents a diverse, insightful, and comprehensive examination into the dynamic framework that innately characterizes and forms the indefinable substance of Theo Angelopoulos’ contemplative and evocatively mythical national cinema.

In David Bordwell’s essay, Modernism, Minimalism, Melancholy: Angelopoulos and Visual Style, Bordwell proposes that Angelopoulos’ stylistic permutation and innovative personalization of dominant, modernist filmic conventions intrinsically associates him with the de-dramatized, modernist cinema of Robert Bresson, Carl Theodor Dreyer, Jacques Tati, Kenji Mizoguchi, and in particular, Michelangelo Antonioni. In addition to the bleak, metaphoric landscapes that pervade Antonioni’s 1960s films, Bordwell draws attention to the influence of Antonioni’s alienated placement of actors using a 3/4 back-view orientation, citing examples from Antonioni’s transitional film, Il Grido, on Angelopoulos’ muted, anti-dramatic framing of pivotal sequences that evoke a sense of profound isolation and helplessness.

Dan Georgakas traces the evolution of The Travelling Players as the filmmaker’s deliberate attempt to address the socioeconomic and cultural ramifications of the protracted and divisive political uncertainty of mid twentieth century Greece in the essay, Angelopoulos, Greek History and The Travelling Players, and in the process, provides a scathing portrait of continued foreign intervention that contributed to the unrecoverable devastation of the nation. Describing Angelopoulos’ view as a “fundamental revision of ‘official’ Greek history in which the Left in general, and the Communist Party of Greece (KKE) in particular, were depicted as moral threats to Greek democracy.” Georgakas further explains:

The civil war had not been the result of a Communist bid for total power, but a conflict generated by the vicious persecution of partisan fighters by a conservative government under first British, then American tutelage. Throughout the 1950s, Greece had remained an authoritarian state and had failed to recover from the war, unlike the rest of Europe. Contributing to Greek underdevelopment was the continued servility of its governments to foreign powers… This cinematic tetralogy [Days of ’36, The Hunters, Alexander the Great, The Travelling Players] constituted a massive 12 1/2 hour rethinking of contemporary Greek history, and at its core was the tale told in The Travelling Players.

In A Tour of the Graveyard of Greek Ideals: Voyage to Cythera by Vasilis Rafalidis, the author contextually examines the evocative lure of the mythical Cythera to the soul of the Greek people as an innate longing for a homeland that does not, and perhaps, has never truly existed. Describing Cythera as Antoine Watteau’s romanticized artistic ideal in a famous ship painting entitled Embarquement pour Cythère that led to nineteenth century French poet, Charles Baudelaire’s sirenic obsession to undertake the voyage, Cythera has become synonymous with the idea of a utopia – a mythical geographic location based on a factual entity (Tsirigho Island) that, Rafalidis describes, “belongs to everywhere, except to itself. Just like Greece. Cythera is a non-place (In Greek, ‘non-place’ is ‘u-topos’, a ‘utopia’).” Inevitably, it is the elusiveness of the destination that emphasizes the process of the indefinite – and indefinable – metaphoric journey.

Gerald O’Grady’s appreciative and insightful essay, Tessellations and Honeycombs: The Beekeeper, provides a patternistic observation of the recurring imagery and episodes in The Beekeeper that figuratively illustrate the nature of life’s process which, in turn, serve as an allegory for Angelopoulos’ somber and elegiac statement on the dying of the Greek soul.

In Andrew Horton’s 1995 interview entitled What Do Our Souls Seek? An Interview With Theo Angelopoulos, Angelopoulos reflects on the filming of Ulysses’ Gaze, including the decision to cast Harvey Keitel in the main role of the Greek American filmmaker searching for the earliest recorded Balkan film; the humorous elements infused by veteran comic actor, Thannasis Vengos; the use of a Bosnian “fourth race”, Jewish character as the benevolent archivist, Ivo Levy (Erland Josephson) in order to defuse issues of ethnic divisiveness among Muslims, Serbs, and Croats in the region; and the multiple roles of Romanian actress Maïa Morgenstern (as the representational figures of A.’s true love/Penelope, lover/Calypso, Bosnian widow/Circe, and Levy’s daughter Naomi/Nausikaa). The dialogue subsequently evolves into a series of peripheral anecdotes, including a memorable conversation with Andrei Tarkovsky on the nature of this profound longing for one’s homeland:

Once, in Rome, I was staying in the same apartment building as Andrei Tarkovskij. He was shooting Nostalghia [1983] at the time. And we talked about ‘nostalgia’, the concept and feeling, and he tried to tell me it was a Russian word, but of course I explained that it was a Greek word, ‘nostos’ meaning homecoming. So we argued over whether it was Russian or Greek! Finally, he said, ‘Excuse me, I did not know it was a Greek word, but you see, nostalgia is so deeply a part of the Russian soul and spirit, that I feel it was we who developed it!’ And so it is for Greeks. It’s a strange fact that of all of the foreigners who leave their countries and go to America, it’s the Greeks who have the most nostalgia for the place they were born, and who do, in fact, return home…But what is ‘home’? It is the place where you feel at one with yourself and the cosmos. It is not necessarily a real spot that is here or there. And this goes as a concept for ‘Greece’ as well, for I do not believe that Greece is only a geographical location. That is not what is important or interesting to me. For me, Greece is much larger. It extends much further than the actual borders, for it is the Greece for which we search, like home.

Acquarello, 2003 [reprinted]

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