BEIRUT

Culture

A tough guy stranded in Europe

  • By the end of the film’s opening scene, the corpse of the filmmaker is propped up in a chair.

  • The film is replete with symbolism, here a dismembered Lenin drifting down the Danube.

BEIRUT: Hollywood actors tend to spend much of their time working on movies that aim to make money. Yet A-list U.S. actors do sometimes work with European auteurs.

Displacing American stars within a European art house sensibility can be rewarding, if jarring. When Luchino Visconti cast Bert Lancaster to play Prince Salina in his 1963 film “Il Gattopardo” (The Leopard), it was an inspired choice. Lancaster’s over-dubbed depiction of the ageing yet virile patriarch of an aristocratic family in 19th-century Sicily may or may not have increased the U.S. box office of Visconti’s art film. Yet the cowboy machismo he brings to the prince’s worldly irony does help to transport the movie beyond Sicily.

In Michelangelo Antonioni’s “The Passenger” (1975), Jack Nicholson was charged with investing gun-runner David Locke with the musculature of an American foreign correspondent. Though the English-language production ensured Nicolson didn’t lose his voice to Italian dubbing, Antonioni did deprive him of his gargoyle’s grin.

Consequently, the actor’s portrayal of a man lost in the desert between identities is one of his more nuanced and ambiguous.

Harvey Keitel joined this exclusive group of actors with his turn in Theodoros Angelopoulos’ 1995 “Ulysses’ Gaze.” Keitel plays “A,” a U.S. film director of Greek descent who returns to his village near the country’s northern border for the projection of his latest controversial film.

His real mission is to find three reels of undeveloped film shot in 1905 by the Manakis brothers, who are credited with making Greece’s, indeed in the Balkans’, first film.

As his opening sequence demonstrates, Angelopoulos foregrounds the poetry. An old gentleman, once the Manakis’ assistant, relates how Yannakis Malakis had told him about the lost film reels while preparing to shoot a sailing ship about to weigh anchor from Salonika. He stands with his back to the sea, alongside a wiry old fellow, evidently Malakis himself, fiddling with an antique camera.

After the old filmmaker had finished preparing his camera, the assistant says, he died; the wiry gentleman duly collapses into the narrator’s arms.

The camera tracks right to find A listening to this story. He walks to where Malakis’ corpse had been left propped up in a chair – it’s vanished, though the ship he’d intended to film remains on the near horizon.

Angelopoulos mingles past and present in one frame, heaping layers of metaphor (mainly connected to witnessing and storytelling) atop the Homeric framework referenced in the film’s title.

A’s odyssey begins in his ancestral village and ends in Sarajevo.

Of the handful of characters he encounters en route, his serial companion is Maia Morgenstern. The comely Romanian actor portrays several different female characters (all A’s love interests), all embodying variations on a theme of emotional distress and sensuality, all of whom can be keyed into classical mythology.

In this self-consciously existential journey, Keitel’s character is required be more than a meat puppet whose mouthed English is dubbed into Greek. As he wanders through his personal history as well as that of the region, A becomes a vessel for the memories of the places through which he passes. Likewise he mutates from an Anglophone American to a fluent speaker of local languages – the film speaks Bulgarian, Albanian, Serbo-Croatian, Romanian and, briefly, Kurdish as well as English and Greek.

As A stumbles from one elaborately staged (and, thanks to cinematographers Yorgos Arvanitis and Andreas Sinanos, gorgeous) tableau to the next, he and his pals speak past one another in poetic soliloquys that address the continental themes conjured up by the strife-riven landscapes.

Aside from underscoring the tectonic movement of the 176-minute plot, more than one of the dialogue-like exchanges Angelopoulos makes Keitel utter topples him from poetry into inadvertent comedy.

“Ulysses’ Gaze” screens Friday at Metropolis Cinema-Sofil as part of Beirut’s fifth Greek Film Festival. The 76-year-old Angelopoulos was killed in January, hit by a motorcyclist on the set of his last production. Evidently this tragedy inspired organizers to made the event a miniature retrospective of Angelopoulos’ work.

The cycle will project four of Angelopoulos’ more accomplished recent films. The oldest of the four, “The Suspended Step of the Stork” was nominated for Cannes’ 1991 Palme D’Or.

It tells the story of a Greek journalist who, assigned to cover the story of refugees huddled at Greece’s northern border, encounters a middle aged Albanian refugee (Marcello Mastroianni) who is the spitting (if disheveled) image of a leading Greek MP who had walked out of parliament a decade before and disappeared. Wanting to confirm the man’s identity, the reporter brings the politician’s abandoned wife (Jeanne Moreau) to the border to confront him.

“Ulysses’ Gaze” was also nominated for the Palme D’Or and it did take the festival’s Grand Jury Prize – effectively coming second to Emir Kusturica’s “Underground.”

“If this is what you have to give me,” an unimpressed Angelopoulos told the audience, “I have nothing to say.”

The retrospective’s opening night screening (which is open to invited guests only) is Angelopoulos’ 1998 feature “Eternity and a Day,” whose bushel of awards includes the Palme D’Or.

As poetic as “Ulysses’ Gaze,” “Eternity and a Day” follows Alexandre (Bruno Ganz), a writer deeply ambivalent about his legacy who, on his last day of life, wanders across a landscape redolent with memory and metaphor.

Anglophone critics were divided about the 1998 Palme D’Or winner.

Writing in The Times, Janet Maslin suggested that Angelopoulos’ “style of drifting metaphysical reverie is at its most accessible here.” The Village Voice’s then-chief critic, J. Hoberman, remarked that, though aptly named, “‘Eternity and a Day,’ is by far the weakest of” Angelopoulos’ films, pushed “past the point of endurance [by] the filmmaker’s ponderous style.”

You decide.

The Beirut Greek Film Festival’s Theodoros Angelopoulos retrospective is open to the public from Nov. 16-18. All films are subtitled in French. For more information see www.metropoliscinema.net.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 14, 2012, on page 16.
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