A walk on the blind side

ULYSSES' GAZE Theo Angelopoulos (PG); Three lost films and a hero with a mission: Adam Mars-Jones on a symbol- burdened take on Homer
Anyone who doubts that the European art film can deal with the horrors of modern European history, up to and including the Bosnian conflict, should see Theo Angelopoulos's Ulysses' Gaze, where those doubts will be cruelly substantiated. The film won prizes at Cannes and elsewhere last year, which only goes to prove that high art, too, can be opportunistic in its own way, and have its opportunism rewarded.

Ulysses' Gaze tells a highly symbolic story of the wanderings of a nameless film-maker (Harvey Keitel), who is searching for three reels of long-lost, undeveloped film shot by the Manakis brothers, pioneering Balkan documentarists. If this is a version of the wanderings of Odysseus, it is in certain crucial respects reversed: while Odysseus was returning home after a war, Ulysses' Gaze starts with the hero returning to his hometown in Greece after a career in America, and then follows him towards the conflicts in our headlines, from Bucharest to Belgrade and finally Sarajevo.

As practised by Angelopoulos, epic is the fated art form of someone with no interest in people. Homer would not have had it so, but then Homer could characterise a princess, say, playing on the beach with her maids, in a few lines. Angelopoulos and his three co-writers are unable to deliver human detail at any point. They seem to feel that significance is guaranteed by ambition of theme, when the truth experienced by any viewer of Ulysses' Gaze is that pretentiousness becomes agonising when it is arbitrarily attached to historical suffering.

It isn't long before we're sick of those three lost reels and the hero's obsession with what they represent: "The first film, perhaps. The first glance. A lost glance. A lost innocence." The film curator in Sarajevo (Erland Josephson) salutes his great faith in coming so far in his quest, and then asks, "Or is it despair?" The curator has spent years trying to find the right formula for developing the film: "There are times when the gurgling fluids sound like a song. Like a song. Like a song." The hero rails at him to have one last try: "You have no right to keep it locked away. That gaze. It's the war, the insanity, death. You have no right."

Those three reels, though, turn out to be as much of a pretext as the Iranian in Notorious, but with an entertainment value of zero. At the end of Ulysses' Gaze, the hero understands that the survival of a Balkan documentary has no importance compared to a massacre of the innocents. We gather that this is supposed to come as a shock.

Harvey Keitel looks extremely uncomfortable more or less throughout. He has been directed to shed the mannered dynamism of his American work. We can almost hear the director shouting at him through an invisible bull horn just before he enacts semi-comprehensible gestures: now touch the car's bonnet with both hands, now blow the old lady a kiss. Keitel even moves more slowly than the people around him. This tendency reaches its logical conclusion in a Sarajevo sequence that would be hilarious in a less self-important project. The hero stands still, calling out "Is this Sarajevo?" as people dash past him avoiding sniper fire.

Another sequence of accidental comedy is a dream memory of Bucharest at the end of the Second World War. Keitel's family is having a New Year knees-up. His father returns from prison camp. Everyone cries, "Happy 1945!" Two sinister men arrive, dance together and then dance dad away again. "Auld Lang Syne" starts up, but this time the cry is "Happy 1948!". Then the echo of Bunuel is driven out by the influence of Monty Python: a maid announces "The People's Committee", adding, by way of explanation, "for the confiscation." "Ignore them!" says the hero's uncle, and so the guests dance on as furniture is carried past them, toasting 1950, until the piano, too, is taken away.

One of the first things said in the film is that Balkan reality is much tougher than American reality. Maybe so, but there is no Balkan reality on offer. Much of the film is implausible on the most basic level, on the level of gesture. Why does the pretentious taxi driver ("Me and the snow have been talking for 25 years") leave the car windows open in such cold weather? Because the director wants a particular shot. Why does the young woman never look down while she runs down the platform at Skopje station, but instead maintains unbroken eye contact with Harvey Keitel? Because she knows the film crew have kept the platform clear of toddlers and goats. Why do the women seem so interchangeable, first resisting the hero and then clawing at his clothes? Because they're symbolic, silly. Women always are.

Angelopoulos and his director of photography, Yorgos Arvanitis, manage a handful of arresting images over three hours: a confrontation in a Greek street, with massed umbrellas in the foreground, massed riot shields and helmets in the middle, massed torches burning in the background. A huge statue of Lenin, cut into sections and loaded not quite coherently into a barge, travelling down river. A foggy day in Sarajevo, when snipers can't do their job and life returns almost to normal.

Except that again Angelopoulos shows he has no notion of the everyday, in Sarajevo or anywhere else. A foggy day in Sarajevo turns out to be an arts festival where all the art is symbolic. A multi-ethnic youth orchestra plays naggingly sombre music. A bunch of actors put on Romeo and Juliet (for Verona read Sarajevo). And Keitel's love scene with the latest female symbol is as overbearingly literary as everything else. She says, "You were sleeping like a baby when I woke you." He replies, "Will you wait for me?" She wonders, "Is it wrong not to love your native city?" They are made for each other.

Gian Maria Volonte, to whom the film is dedicated, was cast in an important role but died in the course of shooting. His absence may explain some of the incoherence of Ulysses' Gaze, but much more seems to be missing than a single star performer. How can you analyse or dramatise or symbolise the sufferings of Europe without yourself showing respect for human life, in the way that art must show that respect, by paying close attention? No amount of naggingly sombre music can substitute for an earnt tragic emotion, and fancy speeches are diminished, not enhanced, by being put into the mouths of the bombarded or bereaved. Artists should know their limits, and not imagine there's anything virtuous about using human bonemeal as ballast for their balloons.

n On release from tomorrow