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

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

    Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

    His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
    'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

    Open letter to David Cameron

    Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
    Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

    You don't say!

    Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
    Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

    So what is Mubi?

    Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
    The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

    The hardest job in theatre?

    How to follow Kevin Spacey
    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders