Theo the great

You'll get no joy from 'Troy' or 'Alexander'. For real Greek drama, says Jonathan Romney, turn to Theo Angelopoulos, whose films transform the ancient myths into modern-day masterpieces
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The Independent Culture

Not many of today's major European directors stand so totally outside the vagaries of fashion as Theo Angelopoulos. Our current ideas of what makes a film-maker great favour the hipster pop-culturists, and we have little patience for those few sombre celebrants who unapologetically cherish the art form's loftier aspirations, who insist on seeing the cinema as a temple rather than a mall.

Not many of today's major European directors stand so totally outside the vagaries of fashion as Theo Angelopoulos. Our current ideas of what makes a film-maker great favour the hipster pop-culturists, and we have little patience for those few sombre celebrants who unapologetically cherish the art form's loftier aspirations, who insist on seeing the cinema as a temple rather than a mall.

It would be all too easy to dismiss Theodoros Angelopoulos not just as a classical but an ancient Greek, the practitioner of a dead language. His films are august, even monumental: any one of them could be characterised as a severe celluloid Parthenon. Angelopoulos takes cinema seriously, perhaps as seriously as anyone currently working in the medium. He believes in film's capacity to illuminate the complexities of history; he may be the only contemporary film-maker to unabashedly use the term "the human condition" in his press notes.

I interviewed Angelopoulos in November - alas, two months too early to ask his opinion of Oliver Stone's dismal Alexander, which turned out to be something of a phenomenon in Greece. Angelopoulos made his own Alexander the Great film (Megalexandros) in 1980 - not about the Macedonian warlord but about a bandit who believes he is his reincarnation. For Angelopoulos (70 this year), history, like myth, is never safely buried in the past but is forever resurfacing to shape the present. Not surprisingly, he has little patience with last year's Troy: "Myth," he says, "demands a different approach. Realism ruins everything. Anyway, poor Homer never told stories like that." His latest film, Trilogy: The Weeping Meadow, may not be the best introduction to Angelopoulos. One of his more austere works, it's also uncharacteristically linear, so much so that it could almost be mistaken for a conventional history drama (if not for its sometimes bewildering jumps, with several years' worth of implied drama passing between scenes).

Even so, there's no mistaking Angelopoulos's style or his ambition. The first of three projected parts - one of which, unimaginably, will be a science-fiction story - The Weeping Meadow covers 30 years of Greek history, starting in 1919, as Greeks routed from Odessa by the Red Army return to their homeland, and ending in 1949, after the Civil War.

Characteristically, The Weeping Meadow is not only about history, but about the myths that Angelopoulos sees as underlying human experience.

His vast Brechtian epic, The Travelling Players (1975), was a thinly-disguised modern-day Oresteia, while Ulysses' Gaze (1995) was only the most overt of Angelopoulos's several retellings of The Odyssey.

In The Weeping Meadow, everything begins with the Oedipus story, as a young woman abandons her wedding to her adoptive father and elopes with his son. "It's a simple story," Angelopoulos says, "about someone who steps outside the established order and turns the norms upside down.

"That's when you get tragedy. Then history intervenes and accentuates the tragedy. No one can say, 'I'm outside history, leave me alone, I'm not taking part.'"

For Angelopoulos, indeed, there's nothing new under the sun. His idea since The Travelling Players, he says, has been "to bring myth out of pre-history into history - to show that myth and spiritual experience are not dead things, but continual references in contemporary life. I'd even say that the history of the Balkans - everything that happened in Sarajevo and Kosovo - is scarcely different from the Peloponnesian War as described by Thucydides."

Angelopoulos has his own story of the impossibility of stepping outside history. In the Civil War, his father was a Democrat, but refused to take a stand for either party in the conflict. As a result, he was arrested by Leftist militia - having been informed on by Angelopoulos's own cousin - and taken for execution.

Although he later turned up alive, the director remembers going with his mother to search for his father among the bodies dumped around Athens: an image echoed in a scene fromThe Weeping Meadow. "It's an image that stays with you. It conditions you," Angelopoulos says, "because there's an open wound."

Detached though it sometimes feels, Angelopoulos's work is charged by the obsessive return of structures, symbols, leitmotifs. There are the celebrations brutally interrupted by the arrival of nefarious political or military forces; the crowds carrying black umbrellas under grey skies; the figures (Fates, Furies or guardian angels?) shrouded in bright yellow sou'westers. There are the groups of lost travellers emerging out of nowhere carrying their luggage - like the itinerant thespians of The Travelling Players, who wander through a five-and-a-half-hour timewarp of modern history, later to re-emerge in the present-day Landscape in the Mist, a 1988 film of Angelopoulos's. It's surely them we see, too, reincarnated as the arrivals from Odessa, in the opening shot of The Weeping Meadow.

You could say, as some exasperated critics have, that Angelopoulos is forever re-making the same film. He wouldn't argue: "I love Bergman because he always made the same film - Fellini and Antonioni too. Anyone who has their own signature always makes the same film." Compulsively too, Angelopoulos haunts the same landscapes. His stories are set in the bleak mountains and blasted heaths of northern Greece and its borders, areas that belong more to the Balkans than to the balmy Mediterranean you associate with tourist Greece - or, for that matter, with Ulysses' voyages. "Balzac says there are certain places in the world which have no history," says the director, "and for me, the islands have no history. I'm attracted by places where there is a problem - places where you can see the human adventure, the human condition, and see them in the form of tragedy." Besides, he says, "It's a question of colour. I like cloudy skies."

It's the way Angelopoulos uses such unpromising locales that makes his films akin to landscape art, or to a sort of modernist outdoor theatre. He is a master of complex movements on the widest possible terrains. Armies, wedding parties, funerals parade through landscapes and villages, crossing paths in long, intricately choreographed tracking shots that can magically jump decades in the turn of a corner. He will stretch a crowd along a riverbank, send black-sailed mourning flotillas across a lake, suddenly reveal an uncanny apparition in a mountain pass; in his last film, Eternity and a Day, lonely figures hang like bats on a wire fence in deep snow.

The central event in The Weeping Meadow is the flooding of a village and the subsequent exodus by water. Angelopoulos had the village specially built on the bed of Lake Kerkini in northern Greece, which naturally empties out in winter. "The lake becomes a steppe, but only for three months, and in that three months we had to build and shoot, then wait for the flood to come and completely destroy the village - we didn't intervene at all, the water did all the work." While waiting for the flood, Angelopoulos filmed another specially constructed village in Thessaloniki; it too ended up destroyed, this time at the behest of the port authorities, to make way for a car park.

Angelopoulos is not known for false modesty: during our interview he chuckles, recalling how a critic recently saw his first feature Reconstruction and told him, "I didn't realise you'd started with a masterpiece." He is said to have let it be known that he fully expected to win the Palme d'Or in Cannes for Eternity and a Day, after its predecessor Ulysses' Gaze only won the Jury and Critics' Prizes.

Comparing himself with other film-makers, he tends to name as his peers the hallowed likes of Antonioni, Bergman and Fellini, who started their feature careers two, even three decades before him (he made Reconstruction in 1970). Without a doubt, he considers himself part of the Pantheon.

Born in Athens in 1935, he studied in Paris at the prestigious film school IDHEC, but left after one teacher took exception to his self-esteem, reputedly telling him, "Go and sell your genius in Greece." Returning home, he worked as film critic on a left-wing daily newspaper which was closed down by the military junta in 1967. ("These days," he says, "I say I'm on the Left almost out of sentiment, because I don't know what the Left is any more.") His first directing experience, incongruously, was a never-completed pop film that Angelopoulos envisioned along the lines of Richard Lester's Beatles vehicles. After Reconstruction in 1970, he made a series of historical films including the mammoth The Travelling Players, a fractured panorama of modern history that made the director's international reputation when shown in Cannes in 1975.

The specific nature of their historical references means that non-Greeks can easily feel disoriented by Angelopoulos's films, especially given his Möbius-strip manipulations of time. "When things are linear, the journey is short, and I prefer the long voyage, where you descend into the past and come back out in the present. For me, there's no such thing as past and present. Everything is present." But the same key elements recur: the establishment, in 1936, of the dictatorship of General Metaxas; the German occupation, the Communist-led resistance and the arrival of British forces in 1944; and the subsequent Civil War. Often these events are alluded to rather than described, recounted in virtually wordless movements, in a sort of ritual choreography traced in complex, stately, often challengingly long takes.

Since the mid-Eighties, however, most of Angelopoulos's films have extended their canvas to Europe in general, and the Balkans in particular. It has certainly boosted Angelopoulos's profile to work with internationally known names such as Marcello Mastroianni and - with mixed results - Harvey Keitel, whose bemused presence brought an awkward weight to the already monolithic Ulysses' Gaze. Angelopoulos hopes to cast American names in the next instalment of his Trilogy: perhaps matching Keitel with Sean Penn or Dustin Hoffman, although he hasn't approached anyone yet. In The Weeping Meadow, however, his leads are two young Greek unknowns. "I enjoy working with great actors, and I enjoy working with novices. What's difficult is working with people in the middle, who don't have the innocence or the experience."

As Greece's only internationally famous film-maker, Angelopoulos is in the curious position of being an ambassador for his national cinema while both lying outside it and casting a terrifying shadow over up-and-comers. One of his three daughters is a film student in London - the family name can't be a light one to carry.

Angelopoulos has a very specific idea of what it means to be Greek, one based on language and culture: a strand of Eternity and a Day involves a 19th-century Greek poet trying to reclaim the language for modernity, one word at a time. Angelopoulos once commented, "I consider Greece not as a country but as a civilisation which exists through its people and what they do, not through political speeches. I don't care what its frontiers are." He is peppery on the recent Olympics and their equivocal homecoming.

He wishes that the Games had not been, as he puts it, "an economico-nationalistico-commercial operation. But how can you do it when you're paying more for security than for the Games themselves?" He shakes his head over the event staged at the ancient arena in Olympia itself, where the winner of the women's shot put turned out to be doped: "Symbolically, that says it all."

To some, Angelopoulos is the sort of auteur to be revered rather than enjoyed; but open yourself up to the slow, incantatory rhythms of his cinema and their deep pleasures become apparent (I speak as someone moved to tears by the closing moments of Eternity and a Day). Given that it's an indisputably major film, The Weeping Meadow may nevertheless be minor Angelopoulos. But the Trilogy as a whole might turn out to be far more impressive a farewell to the 20th century than we yet suspect. And The Weeping Meadow confirms that Angelopoulos is, to quote the title of a book of essays on him, the "Last Modernist": the last torch-bearer for the old guard, or if you prefer, the classical avant-garde.

'Trilogy: The Weeping Meadow' is released on Friday. The Theo Angelopoulos back catalogue will be released on DVD by Artificial Eye later this year