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.
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.
Ulysses' Gaze ends with his soliloquy of grief. The character's despair, even though he is now in sole possession of the reels, suggests that his real interest was never the old film footage. How it ties in to his own quest for past memories is uncertain. In fact, there is an air of self-delusion and disingenuity in his grief.
As a performer, Harvey Keitel seems to be dreamily floating throughout much of the film. This approach mostly works, save for a few much too florid speeches. Erland Josephson seems a bit hyperactive as the historian, while Maia Morgenstern gives perhaps the film's finest performance – or rather, performances – even if some of the roles seem a bit too far out.
Ulysses' Gaze also offers a magnificently effective score by Eleni Karaindrou, especially with great viola passages by Kim Kashkashian, which seem almost an organic part of Angelopoulos' visuals. (The scores of Angelopoulos' films are perhaps the only ones equal to those of the great Werner Herzog's films.)
As for Ulysses' Gaze chief flaws, as mentioned above those are to be found in the screenplay. Though penned by Angelopoulos, Giorgio Silvagni, Petros Markaris, and longtime Fellini and Angelopoulos collaborator Tonino Guerra, Ulysses' Gaze goes on a good 40 or so minutes too long. Some trimming of more pedestrian scenes by editor Yannis Tsitsopoulos and some neat Yasujiro Ozu-like elisions (which Angelopoulos makes expert use of in other films), and Ulysses' Gaze would have been a great film – even if just shy of a masterpiece due to bits of overacting and lavender-tinged soliloquies (e.g., “If I should but stretch out my hand I will touch you and time will be whole again,” Keitel's character says at one point).
Ulysses' Gaze received the Jury's Grand Prix (that's the runner-up prize) and the International Federation of Film Journalists' Award (tied with Ken Loach's Land and Freedom) at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival, but it has taken a beating from some critics. In this country, the most virulent review came from none other than that noted lover of Spielbergian tripe, Roger Ebert.
Even so, would that more people had that quality which Angelopoulos so clearly owns. For then, even flawed but excellent films like Ulysses' Gaze would get their proper due.
© Dan Schneider
Note: The views expressed in this article are those of Mr. Schneider, and they may not reflect the views of Alt Film Guide. A version of this Ulysses' Gaze review was initially posted in February 2008.
TO VLEMMA TOU ODYSSEA / ULYSSES' GAZE (1995). Dir.: Theo Angelopoulos. Cast: Harvey Keitel, Erland Josephson, Maia Morgenstern, Thanasis Vengos, Giorgos Mihalakopoulos. Scr.: Theo Angelopoulos, Tonino Guerra, Petros Markaris, Giorgio Silvagni.