Trilogy: The Weeping Meadow
Top Ten List: #9 of 2004 (world premieres)
Top Ten List: #9 of 2005 (U.S. releases)
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Director: Theo Angelopoulos. Cast: Nikos Poursadinis, Alexandra Aidini, Giorgos Armenis, Vassilis Kolovos, Thalia Argiriou, Eva Kotamanidou. Screenplay: Theo Angelopoulos, Petros Markaris, Giorgio Silvagni, and Tonino Guerra.
This review is for acquarello, as generous a friend as she is a critic.

Photo © 2004 New Yorker Films
I live for the day when I will finally see a Theo Angelopoulos movie in a cinema, big and broad, the way all movies—but some movies even more than others—are meant to be seen. But the American distribution market is hardly kind to fans of Theo Angelopoulos, one of the greatest living directors whose name, in this country, means so close to nothing. You have to haunt true-blue art theaters, closer to the territory of MoMA than Miramax, to have any hope of finding these films outside the festival circuit, which is a shame, because my first two exposures to Angelopoulos' work have shown it to be so soulful and enlightening. About a year ago, I saw his four-hour epic The Travelling Players on video and was immediately won over to his aesthetic of extremely long takes, nearly tectonic montage, sober historical address, and tragic fatalism, an aesthetic by which this Greek filmmaker certainly comes naturally. Angelopoulos briefly flirted with wider name recognition when Ulysses' Gaze was a major prizewinner at Cannes in 1995, and again in 1998 when Eternity and a Day won the Palme d'Or at the same festival, by unanimous vote of the jury. Ulysses' Gaze is available on Region 1 DVD, joined in that format only this month by 1988's Landscape in the Mist, seemingly a favorite of the director's most ardent fans. If I believe what I read, those core supporters were generally cool to Angelopoulos' films of the 1990s, but reactions to his most recent movie, Trilogy: The Weeping Meadow, were comparatively warm, so I was determined to track down an imported DVD and find a place to watch it.

Trilogy: The Weeping Meadow is not the fully arresting experience that The Travelling Players is, but it's a commanding piece of filmmaking all the same, a serious historical epic that boldly remanages the usual priorities of that form, and a fractured family saga that, at least in my experience, accumulates power as it continues. In the first, stately shot of the film, a clan of black-clad refugees march forward from a bleary blue horizon of nothing, trekking toward the bare, eroded bank of a river as a narrator informs us that it is "around 1919." These people, we learn, are newly arrived from the Greek communities of Odessa, pulverized by the Bolshevik uprisings and tsarist suppressions that anyone familiar with The Battleship Potemkin can mostly fill in for themselves. Angelopoulos has a propensity for symmetrical framings, and in this first impression, both the shot and the narrator call our attention to the small boy and girl trembling between their parents, reaching subtly for each other's hands. Crucially, the girl is actually not the biological daughter of this family, but an orphan they have absorbed into their group while on their way from Odessa. Cut forward a decade or so and this same girl, Eleni, is being carried home to this same village in a hush; her adoptive father Spyros (Vassilis Kolovos) believes she has been recovering from illness in Thessaloniki, but Spyros' wife Danae (Thalia Argiriou) and sister Cassandra (Eva Kotamanidou, Elektra in The Travelling Players) know that this pale, feeble teenager has just given birth to twin boys and given them away for adoption to escape the certain wrath of Spyros. The father of these children is her adoptive brother, unnamed in the movie, and he visits Eleni's room under cover of darkness, pledging his love for her and reminding her of their conspiratorial childhood plan of fleeing together in the direction of the river, following it to its source, and settling down by themselves.

With only The Travelling Players and inherited wisdom to guide my viewing, The Weeping Meadow already seemed to be locking the expected elements into place: not just the colossal frames and extended shots but the incestuous family dynamics, the abrupt transitions in time, the Attic atmosphere of foretold doom, and the unstoppable, virtually inhuman forward motion of history. Clearly, we have missed complex and critical narrative information in the formally humble leap from the first scene to the second. Even more startlingly, the third scene finds Danae already dead and Spyros an elderly groom deserted at the altar by his bride, who is none other than Eleni herself (played as an adult by Alexandra Aidini). Spyros finds her sopping wedding veil, caught and slung on some stunted brush in the tideland, and he crumbles into the flat brown surf. Eleni, still in her white dress, meets her brother/lover (Nikos Poursadinis) well outside of town, not long before they are identified by a passing truckload of men who recognize them instantly and intone, "Everyone is looking for you." But this stern-looking band of men actually help the lovers make their way to Thessaloniki rather than returning them back home. In an Angelopoulos movie, and in keeping with the grim colors and looming shades of national misfortune, we can only assume that the couple's flight will only postpone or prolong their suffering rather than truly preclude it, but it does confer on The Weeping Meadow a tonal range that The Travelling Players didn't quite allow itself. Because of their constantly pressed circumstances, "ardor" is not quite the right word for the furtive and interrupted passion we witness between Eleni and her lover, a brilliant accordionist who has had the good luck to fall in with a troupe led by a kind violinist named Nikos (Giorgos Armenis). The film never sits easily, and nor do its characters. But Eleni and "The Kid" or "The Young Man," as he is recurrently hailed, make a decent go of things, reclaiming their twin sons Yorgos and Yannis and holding together as local politics, strikes and unemployment, brewing international war, and Spyros' tireless quest in search of his stolen bride continually worry and displace them.

Through a few of these early passages, it cannot be denied that The Weeping Meadow, for all of its formal and stylistic continuities, lacks something of The Travelling Players' august authority as both story and spectacle. Angelopoulos' dramaturgical view of history, as an all but depersonalized force that prods and pushes its characters, takes more than a little getting used to, and at times, at risk of feeling like a philistine, it simply isn't rewarding to watch an important scene of this wobbly family's coming together cut straight to a public loudspeaker blaring the rise of a leftist popular front. Angelopoulos begs for etching, not emoting, from his actors. Clearly cast for their faces and figures, they wear a range of eloquent frowns and glances that don't quite flex or solidify into characters—but then, he flattens historical events in a directly analogous way, refusing to cede his narrative to major events like World War II or the Greek Civil War, into which we arrive in medias res rather than watching them dawn, gather, and erupt as we do in the English Patients and Doctor Zhivagos that often guide our sense of how history translates into movies. Local crises like floods and feuds refuse to take a back seat to fascist takeovers or waves of immigration, which can baffle the viewer who expects to see "real" history rise like a mountain chain from the flat plains of daily life. Angelopoulos' unique artistic bent also favors imposing, even intimidating symbols over big dramatic scenes, and he seems to mind quite little if we know just what they mean, so long as we partake of the feelings they incite.

The Weeping Meadow—the Trilogy in its title implies two follow-up films that may or may not get made—offers a spectrum of these visual set-pieces, stretching from the thrilling to the nearly failed. In one sequence that the filmmakers clearly labored over, our temporarily happy protagonists wade through a forest of laundered white bedsheets, left out to dry, amongst which are concealed the town's musicians. Boldly affiliated with the labor movement, and therefore terrorized by armed patrols, these men make sweet music from amid this scenic, convenient refuge. By his own austere standards, Angelopoulos allows a bevy of continuity cuts as Eleni and her lover play a fleeting game of peekaboo with the players, who ultimately gather at the nearby seashore to bring their performance to a rousing end... an end that, like much in Angelopoulos, does not reach a peaceable finish. Angelopoulos' sequences are so matter-of-fact that reactions to them are destined to be the same, and in this case, despite the intended spirit and energy, the sequence just doesn't work. The setting and trajectory feel equally artificial, and the unexpected arrival of a locomotive at a key, terrible moment doesn't make the scene any less mechanistic. Sluggishness, impersonality, rigid determinism, and an almost incongruous alacrity about the artist's resilient will are the accusations that most plague Angelopoulos from his detractors, so it's a little deflating to behold a scene that draws all of those weaknesses into a crystallized low.

But the heights of The Weeping Meadow, even when they describe pained or difficult moments, are elating in their strength and simplicity. Because so few filmmakers will shoot this way, and even fewer could do so without collapsing into tedium or listlessness, Angelopoulos generates effects and he scores with conceits that you wouldn't see attempted in other movies on similar themes. The greasy ochres and inky blacks that define the movie's palette are forces to be reckoned with, and they carry their own ironies. The former is the color of the earth and its handmade buildings, no matter where the characters travel, and eventually it is the color of the characters themselves as they are harried by awful decisions and harrowed by loss; as history takes its toll, the people who live it start to look more and more like the soil on which they walk, and to which they all return. For the opposite reason, those deep and funereal blacks actually provide relief in many shots, allowing us to see our characters and know that they still move and live, even when they do so at great distances from us. The production design is spare but impressive throughout, with rural photography that looks like a Millet painting or an especially misty Thomas Hardy novel brought to weary life. At one point Eleni and The Young Man bide time amid their elopement inside a majestic theater that has been colonized as a refugee camp, its opera boxes and mezzanines hung with sheets and cheap scrims that speak beautifully to the fragility of privacy, both for refugees everywhere and for this especially perverse couple. The truly Guignol sight of Spyros' flock of sheep, gutted and hung to die on the branches of an enormous tree, greet the couple when they return to the village they so deeply shocked and disgraced; a simple downward tilt of the camera reveals the clay around the tree baptised in blood it can't fully swallow. Not long after this macabre encounter, the village is submerged by deceptively placid floodwaters that constitute an equally indelible image.

The single greatest scene in the film, better than many other films ever achieve, transpires as The Young Man embarks on a great ship bound for America, hoping to make his musical career alongside a nationally famous mentor and thereby to send for his now-wife and their growing boys. Eleni regrets at portside that she hasn't had time to finish the indiscernible scarf or sweater that she was knitting him as a farewell. Her husband grabs the end of yarn trailing off one needle and as a small rowboat conveys him away from the dock and toward the waiting steamer, the yarn extends like Theseus' spool through the labyrinth—the green ocean and the imagined destination are hardly less perilous, and finding his way back to Greece (which, after all, is hardly his intention) will scarcely be easier. The moment, begun with a long closeup on Eleni's hands clutching her knitting as it unwinds, is a richly suggestive tableau, and it lifts the movie permanently into the emotional plane that we've long hoped it might attain.

In the final chapters, Eleni will be jailed for housing a traitor, and while she languishes in her cell, her sons find their way onto opposite sides of the Greek Civil Wars that were the terrible legacy of World War II. Further tragedy, and I use the term advisedly, befalls Eleni at a pace that even a pessimist wouldn't predict, but even as Angelopoulos heads into these most schematic passages of his narrative, his direction feels newly accommodating, patient with emotion and confident that the expression of personal feeling can reveal historical content instead of automatically distorting it, and without requiring heavy formalist intervention. The boundaries of her performance suddenly widened, Alexandra Aidini does shattering work with a despondent monologue in which she mostly repeats a few scrambled phrases: "The uniforms change," "I have no soap," "Where are you taking me?" It seems forever the fate of Greek tragedies that they end with women, desperate to console each other in wholly disconsolate climes, and as Aidini pulls the audience into Eleni's long-veiled depths, and Angelopoulos climactically reveals the basis for his film's evocative title, The Weeping Meadow feels urgent, impressive, absorbent of the world's pain in a way that offers nothing in the way of answer but much in the way of voice. Furnishing us with a style, a structure, and an emblematic image that express a global dismay that so often feels inexpressible, Angelopoulos courts a kind of wintry humanism that I was electrified to experience. It mattered little to me that the literal image on which the movie closes is infinitely more clichéd than the gorgeous one described in narration. And as much as they intrigued me, the widening loopholes of formal play near the movie's end—a living woman watches as characters we know to be dead discuss her own death as a thing of the past—were not what sealed my esteem for the film. Trilogy: The Weeping Meadow is flawed and occasionally frustrating, but the heart and humanity that glimmer through the movie finally emerge in palpable relief, while still resisting any simple sentimentality. Does it make a difference that by the time I saw the movie, its driving motifs of flooded landscapes and rooftop atolls have sprung up so regularly on the world stage? Perhaps, but even as a virtual non-initiate in the fine points of Greek history, I accepted the sense and sensibility of the movie even within its stated cultural purview. The scenes and events described in The Weeping Meadow haven't directly touched my life, and they needn't have, because under Angelopoulos' wavering but finally wise and feeling hand, they touch something about Life, and how many recent movies have done that? A–

European Film Awards: FIPRESCI Prize

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