Theodore Angelopoulos: Film director whose work was suffused with Homeric intensity

 

Theo Angelopoulos, acclaimed as one of the greatest film-makers in his lifetime, was fatally injured on a desolate urban landscape under an overcast, drizzly sky, hit by a motorcyclist while trying to cross a highway.

He was shooting his 14th feature film and the scenery had most of the elements associated with his work. It even overlooked a port, namely Piraeus, symbol of journeys, of the ebb and flow of many of his characters as they leave in exile only to return as strangers, before moving on.

His ambiguous relation to cinematography was illustrated one evening after the hugely oversubscribed screening of his film Ulysses' Gaze at the 1995 London Film Festival. During the reception, he pulled away from the networks of Greek embassy glitterati and admiring LFF film buffs.

He asked, who are they all? Then he muttered that the film had received no funding from Greeks and far more press coverage in Turkey. He noted, "something is disappearing, I don't know if it's Europe that has aged, lost its balance, its dream, its ability to see into the future." He was an unglamorous, driven, difficult director.

The film followed an American Greek, identified as "A" and played by Harvey Keitel, in search of a three old film reels and journeying from the port of Thessaloniki, through Albania to, literally, the mists of wartorn Sarajevo; to film, Angelopoulos had to negotiate with Serb militia. The sombre Keitel character is driven by a Greek taxi driver over the snowbound Greek-Albanian Pindus Alps, where Greece had won the first victory against the Axis in 1940.

The driver's part was played by the comedy actor Thanassis Vengos, a sacred cow of Greece's no-worries attitude. But Angelopoulos transforms him into a tragic figure who blurts across the desolate peaks, "Greece is dying, we are dying as a people, we have come full circle". The film won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival, while his next, Eternity and a Day, received the 1998 Palme d'Or at Cannes. That was in a long line of prizes, critical acclaims and honorary titles.

Theodore Angelopoulos was born in Athens in 1935 and grew up through the Nazi occupation and the 1946-49 Civil War that signalled the division of the world between East and West. These Homeric upheavals provided key themes for his films. He eventually studied film in Paris at the IDHEC film school, but had to leave for being "too unconventional". He was a socialist and in 1965 returned to Greece. He began making films just after the military coup in 1967.

With friends in prison and others in self-imposed exile, he remained, and defied the censor. He outwitted the Junta with his first film, Anaparastassi [Reconstruction] by showing it to the critics before the censors and by having it illegally taken abroad. Since international acclaim came before the censor's veto, it was allowed to run. Its theme about the depopulation of the countryside and emigration to escape a corrupt state, stands its ground today.

His third film, O Thiasos [The Travelling Players], was finished in 1975 and still enjoys the highest ratings. It follows a troupe of travelling players through Greece, between 1935-1950 as they act and react to events. It is over three hours long and consists of only 80 shots, a world apart from the Hollywood standard of fast edits. However, his masterly slow pans across landscapes and interiors allowed the audience to absorb the scene. They were meticulously mounted with references to real events and often drifted between past and present without clues as to what to expect. He acknowledges no ethnicities or borders; just journeys in space and time. Arts cinemas loved him.

Angelopoulos's influences included Brecht, Renoir, Visconti, and especially Antonioni, with his lengthy panoramas of contemporary alienation. And Angelopoulos sought the Greece beyond the sun and the white marbles of antiquity, a land whose memories owe far more to the cosmopolitanism of Hellenistic Byzantium than the Parthenon.

Like Byzantine iconographers he shunned the surface image. However, instead of gold, there is mist, instead of the Icon's gateway to a higher world, his scenes search for reconciliation with a lost world. In effect, he offers a melancholy Byzantine purgatory, punctuated by wonderfully atmospheric music and populated by characters at a loss as to how to make it safely with their memories through the new world. But his wider vision will gain growing appeal as it transcends the monoliths of fleeting nationalisms and the acceptance that people consist of overlapping narratives, rather than dogmas.

Theodore Angelopoulos, film director: born Athens 27 April 1935; married Foebe (three daughters); died Athens 24 January 2012.

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