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DVD Review: Trilogy: The Weeping Meadow

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Of the three Theo Angelopoulos films that I have watched, currently available on American DVDs, all have been truly great films. 1988’s Landscape In The Mist is a terrific tale of two children on an unattainable quest; 1998’s Eternity And A Day is a great film dealing with the complexities of imminent death; but, having just watched his most recently completed film, 2004’s Trilogy: The Weeping Meadow (Trilogia I: To Livadi Pou Dakryzei), I can honestly say, "There’s great, and then there’s Great!"

As excellent as the first two films are, this film is superior in almost all ways — from the camera movements and screen compositions, to the acting and character development, to the most basic elements of the picaresque story. Fortunately, many European critics agreed, and it won the 2004 European Film Academy Critics Award.

In some ways, this film takes the best parts of the work of Federico Fellini, Terrence Malick, and Michelangelo Antonioni, and stews them until they melt into a work only Angelopoulos could make.

However, what separates Angelopolous films from most other films by even some great filmmakers are his screenplays. This film was written by him, longtime Fellini collaborator Tonino Guerra, Petros Markaris, and Giorgio Silvagni, and even though, like the other films of his I’ve seen, this one is spare in dialogue, the story coheres because of the way the scenes are written to allow the actors’ expressions to convey what words need not. And, like Yasujiro Ozu, Angelopoulos is a master of ellipses, never fully explaining certain things in a film, nor deliberately not showing the viewer things that would be standard in a more linear film.

A good example of this is when the orphan girl, Eleni (Alexandra Aidini), who Spyros and Danae (Thalia Argyriou) take in as a foster child, gets pregnant; in a scene that shows her as a teen, she is sent away for months to give birth to twin boys, and then brought home. Yet, we never know who the real father is — the old man Spyros (Vassilis Kolovos), or his unnamed son (played by Nikos Poursanidis, a good looking version of Jim Carrey, who is unnamed in the film — at least the American version, although is referenced as Alexis in many reviews).

Similarly, after Danae dies, we see Eleni run away with the son, and hitch a ride with the musicians hired to play at the wedding. The adventures they have with the musicians makes a good portion of this film reminiscent of Angelopoulos’s own The Traveling Players, Fellini’s Variety Lights, and Ozu’s Floating Weeds. It is not until later in the film that we learn she actually did marry the old man, when he comes to take her back and soliloquies on a theater stage. Or, at least, that's what the old man claims.

This lack of information helps the film because it places the viewer in a position to desire to learn the truth, without passive acceptance, therefore involving the audience more. But it also helps the story retain itself in the viewer’s mind long after the film is done, for one has to question what was seen. And Angelopoulos strikes the right balance. Too much questioning and a viewer is bored. Too little questioning, and the viewer is not drawn in at all.

The film is not an epic, per se, although oftentimes films with large themes and purviews are called that. In fact, it is a highly intimate film that focuses basically on the life of one character, Eleni, from 1919 to 1949.

Yes, it deals with big themes — natural disasters, refugees, political unrest, wars (civil and global), and smaller ones — out of wedlock pregnancy, possible rape, adoption, loss, death — but it does so with a poesy and grace that never feels forced. Although the film clocks in at 163 minutes, the patented long takes that Angelopoulos uses actually sear the scenes into one’s memory, so that the near entirety of the film impacts. There is no Hollywood quick cut blurring, just a focus on the moment.

Yet, here, too, the director subverts expectations, for the scenes are not melodramatic, and the camera, while not as static as the famed tatami mat shots of Ozu, is never frenetic. There is a calmness of vision that dominates the storytelling, even when the actual canvas of the screen is filled with horror.

Three such scenes are indelible. The first opens the film, with a voiceover by an unknown narrator (Angelopoulos himself), as a band of people, refugees from Odessa, approach the camera. Spyros speaks to someone across the river, but directly into the camera, and tells of his people’s plight. He seems to be the de facto leader, a fact that will resonate later in the film. He tells of the group’s escape, and that the little girl next to his son is not his, but an orphan who was found over her mother’s body. The camera then pans down to the river, and we see the reflections of the man, his wife, and the two children. We then hear the boy whisperingly ask the girl her name. She tells him, "Eleni." Then we get the film credits. It is a powerful foreshadowing of that character’s search to assert herself throughout the rest of her life, and the film.

The second scene is when Spyros, after finally tracking his son and Eleni down, dances with her at a beer hall political rally. He then wordlessly drops dead after leaving them, knowing she will never return. Upon the young couple’s return to their village, to bury his father, there is a powerful scene of his casket being rowed on a raft (a scene which is echoed later in the film, when the river floods out the town and the refugees all leave on boats).

The appeal to Greek history and myth is palpable, and leads into the final, and most powerful, scene. After the raft trip and burial, Eleni and the son return to the family home, the Big House of the village, and are confronted with the ghastly sight of their father’s sheep all killed, with throats slit, and hanging from the branches of a large tree. Manifestly, they have not been ‘forgiven’ by the town for disrespecting Spyros by running away.

Many critics claim that Angelopoulos’s films are an acquired taste, but all that is required is attention, for once that is given, his mastery of the art rivets a viewer. Even many of the most speed-addicted American filmgoers cannot help but be moved by the power, the sheer visual power, of the images Angelopoulos wields. He also allows more interactiveness by the viewer. Instead of cueing the viewer, at emotional moments, with simplistic back and forth cutting between close-ups, he lets the scene play out from a distance, so that two or more characters are in the same shot. One might be in darkness, or with a back turned, but this allows the actors to act with their whole bodies, and not overact with just their faces. Yet, because Angelopoulos distances the audience from false emotion, when he finally does do a closeup, the emotion has even more power.

This also allows the filmic poesy to take hold, such as in a scene where Eleni, thinking her lover is abandoning her to travel with a musical company run by a man named Markos, that will tour America, runs off to a dock. She then begins dancing with a series of strange men, until Spyros’s son comes to take her home, and says he has not betrayed her. He says, "I betrayed you? That’s impossible!"

This is a true Fellini moment, manifestly brought to the script by Guerra, and it works, as does the later scene, when the son actually does leave her, for a boat headed toward America. She has been working on a red scarf, and after a tearful goodbye to her and the boys, he grabs hold of a loose end of the scarf, and it unravels from Eleni’s hands, as he is rowed toward the steamer, until the last bit of yarn falls into the sea. It is apt and eloquent symbolism for the audience knows that they will never see each other again.

There are many such other scenes, such as possible dream sequences where the two boys, now of age, serve on opposite sides of the Greek Civil War. Their reunion evokes the Christmas legend of ceased hostilities in World War One. They then return to battle. This scene plays out in Angelopoulos’s meld of time, for it starts with Eleni and an old woman she knew as a girl, climbing up a hill where one of the twins, Yannis, was killed. Then, Eleni hides behind a dune, and the sons, in the past, take over, and even speak of their mother possibly having died in a jail cell for harboring one of the old musician friends of Spyros’s son, who was on the wrong side of the Civil War. When they part, we see Eleni again — with no cuts, no flashbacks, no blurred screen, and she weeps.

She then rows a boat out into the flooded remnants of her old town, to the gutted ruins of the Big House, and finds her other son, Yorgis, whose body is remarkably undecomposed, further suggesting that it is a dream, and weeps that he represents both of her boys. The film then ends on a shot of the water, the eternal that resonates politically and personally.

Yet, there is no melodrama. There is a palpable sense of loss that the viewer feels, for Angelopoulos understates things. As example, when the aforementioned old musician, Nikos (Yorgos Armenis), is killed. In that scene, we hear him shot, then see him emerge from behind many drying white bedsheets, holding his bloody guts. Yet, as he struggles to walk, his bloodied fingers only lightly touch some of the sheets. It is subtle, and, with each step he takes, more blood is left on succeeding bedsheets. He then dies in Eleni’s and her lover’s arms.

This death is a contrast to the earlier death of Spyros, who, after spending the first half of the film stalking his wife and son, including a powerfully symbolic soliloquy onstage at a theater turned boarding house, dies in his son’s arm after confronting them at a political dance at a beer hall. He finally gets his son to play the film’s theme song, and dances with Eleni, until he wordlessly departs, then dies of a heart attack as he is leaving. In the hands of any other director, this would be melodrama; and it certainly is a contrivance, but because the rest of the film has such a sweep, this scene feels almost ‘normal’ because it is so small.

Then there is the aforementioned Angelopoulian ellipses, which weed out the events that most filmmakers would milk for melodrama. As example, most of the ‘big’ historical events, as well as the important familial events, take place offscreen, and can only be surmised. Since we know much about the historical events, and can easily fill in the blanks on the personal stuff, they are unneeded. The intimate is distanced by mid and long shots, while the large is ignored. Thus, we see the effects of such things as the escape from Odessa, Eleni’s pregnancy and childbirth, the son of Spyros in the New World, Word War II and the Civil War, or the deaths of Eleni’s sons.

Yet, the use of ellipses even extends beyond those employed in an Ozu film. As example, despite repetition of the name Alexis, for Spyros’s son, it is never uttered in the film. Also, we never know if Eleni actually ties the knot with the old man, or just jilted him. As stated, Spyros claims they were married in his onstage soliloquy, but we have no way of knowing whether this is true, and the reaction Eleni and the son get upon their return when Spyros dies could be for her jilting the old man.

We also never learn whether the father of the twins is Spyros or his son. The reactions and words of Danae and her female friends suggest that it could be either the old man or the young one. If it is Spyros, was he a rapist and/or pedophile? Does he desire to marry Eleni to atone for his earlier violation? If the son, is the wonderful scene of him talking up to Eleni’s window, at night, as the camera pans up the wall for the majority of his speech, filled with clues, such as his inability to outright state he loves her? After all, he never calls the twins his sons, and they never call him father. Yet, by never settling the question, the film lets later scenes take on deeper complexions.

Then, after being sent away, to give the twins up for adoption, we never learn how Eleni and the son track them down, much less recover them from seemingly rich parents — and why would they turn over the boys, from their life of splendor, to live in squalor? Also, while the possible dream sequence between the two boys, in the Civil War, explains why Eleni is in jail, we are never sure, outside of that claim, and since the dream also hints Eleni is dead, the final scene, where Eleni finds Yorgos’s unrotted corpse at the Big House, could be a metaphor for her journey (across the risen river) to an afterlife as grievous as her lived life. But, who would be the ostensible narrator is not made clear.

Narration, whether actually voiced or just by visuals, is also a fluid thing. The opening narration by Angelopoulos has a God-like feel, but those letters from the son to Eleni, telling of his New World experiences, and those at war in the Pacific (where he dies on Okinawa), act much as the narration in Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line do, as some oversoul with a deeper knowledge. Possibly, the final scenes are of what the dead son sees of his lover, but this is only a possibility. That we are never told universalizes the tale and ending.

The DVD, from New Yorker Video, has a good transfer, and like earlier Angelopoulos DVDs, there seem to be fewer complaints from critics. Perhaps they simply finally have gotten used to the fact that the Greece the director displays is not the sunlit Aegean paradise, but cloudy, misty, rainy, and shadow-filled. The aspect ratio is 1.66:1, and while the film has English subtitles, it lacks a dubbed track in English. There is an excellent half hour long video interview with the director, and a minute long theatrical trailer. There is also a small insert for the DVD that includes a print interview with Angelopoulos, an essay by him, and an abridged 20th century Greek timeline.

The film’s cinematography, by Andreas Sinanos, is spectacular, from the long shots that follow characters from afar, to well-composed foregrounded scenes, to the uses of color throughout. The film starts with muted, almost sepia tones, and grayness, then exhibits flashes of color, here and there, while mostly staying in dark greens, blues, and browns. This heightens the grander moments, such as the bloody death of the musician in the white sheets.

The use of water is also wonderful, from the film’s reflected shots at the opening, through the constant rains and floods, to the last shots overlooking the water, a far better use of imagery than a similar shot which ends Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark. In fact, the scenes of the flooded town were a set built in a high, dry portion of Lake Kerkini, which by March, would rise and submerge the set.

The musical scoring by Angelopoulos’s longtime collaborator, Eleni Karaindrou, is solid, mixing folk songs with classical compositions, all in an understated manner- excepting a great scene where the son auditions with his accordion. Yet, several times in the film, there seems to be an odd noise, like jet sounds in the aural background of some scenes. Is this symbolism or a flaw? Even if a flaw, it is a very minor one, for aside from the aforementioned scenes there are numerous other great scenes in this picaresque film that coheres in the Negatively Capable way John Keats claimed great art works; such as when Nikos dances at night as a saxophone plays, or when Eleni, in fever, babbles on and on of the same things.

Yet, at the center of this great film is not only the ellipsis of information, but the ellipsis of self — the exile from everywhere, a theme that defines much of Angelopoulos’s work, even if it does not define his art, for that is always on target, and brilliantly wrought. The Weeping Meadow is no exception to that claim.

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