That scene also probes one of the unspoken mysteries of the Harvey Keitel character: his relationship with assorted women, which seems to emanate from a rupture with his mother. Early on in the film, Keitel encounters a Greek film historian with whom he seemingly has an affair. Then, he becomes the lover of a war widow (recall, this is the mid-1990s Balkans), who conflates him with her dead husband.
Finally, he seems to connect with the daughter of Sarajevo’s local film archivist, Ivo Levy (Erland Josephson), who got possession of the three lost reels some years earlier, but could not get the right chemicals to develop them. (Josephson was a replacement for Gian Maria Volonté, who died during filming.) Yet, it is not certain how much of what happens with the archivist’s daughter takes place in the film’s inner reality or within Keitel’s fantasies, for all of the film’s key female roles are played by one actress, Maia Morgenstern, in different guises — even as his mother.
His character’s sexuality is not the only place, however, where such an intermingling takes place. In the first scene — another of those great moments when the camera goes back and forth along a pier — an old man who used to be Yannakis Manakis’ assistant tells Keitel that one afternoon in Salonika, Manakis had wanted to photograph a blue ship about to sail. We then see the two men, Manakis and the assistant, on the pier. However, the assistant is the same old man, seen when the film changes from the past’s sepia to the present’s color film. The old man tells Keitel the story merely by walking a few yards toward the actor, as the ship sails off.
Thus, with a few slow, horizontal camera movements, Angelopoulos shows how simple technique can weave a complex tale, with minimal voiceover dialogue from the assistant. This is also an example of great cinematography wherein the actual scenery is rather pedestrian. (How many times have you read a critic praise a film’s cinematography, when all that is done is to let the camera shoot something that is, of itself, beautiful?)
Another example of stellar cinematography comes when a disassembled statue of Vladimir Lenin is placed on a barge and floated down a river. That’s a clear homage to Federico Fellini’s La Dolce vita, opened by a statue of Christ suspended by a helicopter, as well as to Angelopoulos’ own Landscape in the Mist, in which a sculpted hand rises out of a harbor. But unlike those previous films, the symbolism in Ulysses’ Gaze is even more powerful, since most of the Balkans were just coming out from under the Iron Curtain’s pall. Thus, Lenin represents a modern Ozymandias, especially with the statue lying on its back, its outstretched pointer finger aimed toward the heavens, with a muted irony that is delicious.
Earlier in the film, a cab driver taking Keitel from Greece to Albania laments the 3,000-year fall from grace of Greek culture. This viewer is left with the impression that not only is Keitel in search of both the reels and personal redemption of some sort, but also — as the film’s title implies — his own place as a hagiographer of the post-Classical Greek people. That explains his recurring females all looking alike, as if plagued by a goddess of yore, out to seduce and lure him away from his goals.
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