Heroes of epic proportions

A spellbinding Cannes prize-winner unexpectedly links Harvey Keitel, Homer and the Balkans' answer to the Lumiere brothers. By Michael Church
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Everyone has heard of the Lumiere brothers, but it has taken a three-hour blockbuster - endorsed by a prize at Cannes - to alert the world to the fact that the French pioneers of cinema had Balkan counterparts. The fictional quest that powers Theo Angelopoulos's Ulysses' Gaze echoes this Greek film-maker's real-life quest to uncover the work of Macedonia's answer to the Lumieres - the Manakia brothers.

In 1898, Yanaki and Milton Manakia opened a photographic studio in the Macedonian village of Yanina. Business was slow because the peasants were suspicious of this new, soul-stealing art, so the brothers moved on to the city of Bitola, where they became an instant success. Anybody who was anybody beat a path to their door. They won a gold medal at the Bucharest Photographic Exhibition in 1906. Then Yanaki, the elder and better-educated of the pair, went to America and came back with a Bioscope cine-camera. From this point on, the outside world became their studio. They filmed wars and revolutions, from the Macedonian uprising against the Turks to the Balkan conflicts of 1912-13 and the First World War. They filmed amnesties and executions, royal visits and royal flights. Yanaki was briefly imprisoned for his championship of the Valachs (the ethnic minority to which their family belonged).

But their chief interest lay in the pleasures of peace. They not only made films: they showed films by foreign directors proselytising for the cinematic cause. In 1922 they built a cinema in Bitola, and when this burnt down - early film stock was highly combustible - they went round villages with a projector on a lorry.

They ceaselessly recorded what they saw, making detailed studies of weddings and processions, policemen and prisoners, peasants working in the fields and crafts that, even then, were on the verge of extinction. Sequences from their first film have been incorporated in the opening section of Ulysses' Gaze: we see their grandmother and her friends spinning wool in the sun, surrounded by sheep. But in Angelopoulos's sprawling, Proustian vision, this denotes nothing so banal as nostalgia.

His work has always had mythical tendencies. Here he has fused the Odyssey and the Manakia brothers with an idea that the Italian sculptor Giacomo Manzu conceived on his deathbed. Manzu's fanciful notion was that if one could portray the look on Ulysses's face, one could thereby also portray the entire comedie humaine.

Angelopoulos accords mystical significance to the fact that three reels of Manakia film are, even today, sitting undeveloped in the vaults of Belgrade's cinematheque. "Technicians tell me there are two possibilities. The first is that they have developed themselves spontaneously. The second - and more likely - is that the film has reverted to its virgin state. But in my story these cans are a reference point: they contain the resolution of all the hero's doubts - they embody all the innocence of that primal look."

Harvey Keitel - rather an unlikely choice to play a ruminative Greek film-maker - is the hero whose quest takes him, with a symbolic statue of Lenin, the length and breadth of the former Yugoslavia. "This century started in Sarajevo, and that is where it is ending," says Angelopoulos. "But we were not allowed to film in that city: we had to make do with Mostar and Vukovar. We showed the script to each of the warring factions, so they all knew what we were doing."

The film's momentum may be wayward, but it finally pulls itself together with an extraordinary sequence. While students stage a sweetly homespun Romeo and Juliet in the ruins of Sarajevo, an itinerant family is massacred in the mist. "I give no indication of who pulled the trigger: I deliberately made the victims Jewish, so as not to take sides in the current dispute. Normality means random extinction, by anonymous guns." Angelopoulos quotes from TS Eliot's "East Coker", then reverts to the timeless significance of the Manakias. Hmm. Perhaps that message becomes clearer on a second viewing.

n 'Ulysses' Gaze' is released on 16 Feb