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ULYSSES GAZE Review: Theo Angelopoulos

TO VLEMMA TOU ODYSSEA / ULYSSES' GAZE (1995)

Director: Theo Angelopoulos

Cast: Harvey Keitel, Erland Josephson, Maia Morgenstern, Thanasis Vengos, Giorgos Mihalakopoulos

Screenplay: Theo Angelopoulos, Tonino Guerra, Petros Markaris, Giorgio Silvagni

Harvey Keitel, Ulysses' Gaze
Harvey Keitel, Ulysses' Gaze

Greek filmmaker Theo Angelopoulos' 1995 effort To Vlemma tou Odyssea / Ulysses' Gaze is the first of that director's four films that I have seen that is not unequivocally a great work of art. Although there are arguments that can be made in favor of that claim, the film's 173-minute running time is much too long, especially considering that Ulysses' Gaze is the least poetic of the aforementioned four films. (For the record, the others are Landscape in the Mist, Eternity and a Day, and Trilogy: The Weeping Meadow.)

Of course, I'm not saying that Ulysses' Gaze is a bad film or that it lacks Angelopoulos' trademark visual poesy. On the other hand, the film lacks several important narrative elements while offering poorly scripted scenes and a slow-paced narrative, especially in its last third.

The basic plot follows a nameless exiled Greek-American filmmaker (Harvey Keitel) — referred to as 'A' in the DVD credits and in many reviews, though nowhere in the film is the character's name mentioned — who, after thirty-five years, returns to the Balkans in search of three lost reels of footage from the earliest known extant Greek film, made by the brothers Yannakis and Miltos Manakis in 1905. The Manakis seem to be near-mythic figures, representing something akin to what D.W. Griffith is to American cinema, even though they were documentarians, logging for decades the travails of the Balkans and the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in the first half of the twentieth century.

Keitel's character seems to have personal reasons for making this trip. Several possibilities are hinted at in flashback scenes: in one instance, Keitel simply wanders into his past, while a dream sequence involves the supposed death of one of the brothers. Yet, Ulysses' Gaze does not rely on typical narrative techniques to reveal Keitel's quest; instead, Angelopoulos uses a barrage of slowly developing images that subsumes the story into an emotional upwelling.

Oftentimes, cinematographers Yorgos Arvanitis and Andreas Sinanos' cameras slowly pan ahead of Keitel, then back toward him, or pull away from a "scene," turns 90 or 180 degrees, then swivels back and peers even more deeply at whatever "scene" it had just left. It's as if the camera is signaling that what seems the same is different, thus pulling the viewer into a closer reckoning of stasis vs. change.

The best such moment takes place when Keitel, in flashback, visits with his mother at his old family home in 1945. There he encounters long dead relatives with whom he converses as "Auld Lang Syne" is played on a piano. Soon afterward, his father returns from the Second World War, and someone mentions it's 1948. At first, it seems as if there was a typo in the English subtitles of the film. But then someone mentions it's 1950; Communists arrive and clear out the room of furniture, even the piano. The song stops, and as time moves on the extended family gathers for a photo. Keitel, who has wandered out of frame, is called back by his young and beautiful mother, and although Keitel's voice answers her (in English, though he is called in Greek) a little Keitel look-alike boy enters frame, and the camera slowly focuses in on him till the scene ends silently.

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