Maverick Greek director Theo Angelopoulos’ latest epic is a tremendously challenging and demanding work that will leave audiences who latch onto its style and mood satisfied but utterly drained. The three-hour pic, as usual with this helmer, takes its own sweet time to make a devastating statement about the tragic Bosnian conflict; it’s certainly not for the impatient viewer. Despite the presence of Harvey Keitel in the lead role, it will take a brave distrib to take a risk on this prestige item Stateside. Theatrical release in other Anglo countries is also iffy, but in Europe the director’s rep and the powerful subject of the film should guarantee specialized release.
The Odyssey theme suggested in the title (but nowhere else in the film) is just the starting point for a journey across the Balkans from Athens to Sarajevo by a Greek-American filmmaker, never named in the film but called simply “A” in the credits. Keitel gives another of his gutsy performances as this obsessive character.
A has returned to Greece after a 35-year absence because he’s making a documentary about the work of the legendary Manakia brothers, pioneer filmmakers at the turn of the century who traveled through the Balkans, ignoring national and ethnic strife, to record ordinary people (especially craftsmen) on film. A has heard that three reels of undeveloped film shot by the brothers exist in the Sarajevo Film Archive, and is determined to locate it, despite the conflict in Bosnia.
Along the way he has a variety of encounters. He helps an old woman cross into Albania in search of the sister she hasn’t seen in 47 years; in Albania, he meets a woman who accompanies him on the train to Bucharest, where flashbacks intro A’s mother.
In one of the film’s most magical sequences, which unfolds entirely in one lengthy shot, A’s family celebrates the new year in Constanza over a period of five years (1945-50), during which period the Communist Party extends its grip on the bourgeoisie. Another striking sequence depicts a giant statue of Lenin being transported on a boat down the river to Belgrade. In the Serbian capital, A meets an old journalist pal and they drink to now-dead friends, including giants of cinema such as Murnau, Dreyer and Welles. Finally, two hours into the pic, A arrives in shattered Sarajevo.
Here he meets Ivo Levy, curator of the Sarajevo Film Archive, whose heavily damaged premises and burned-out cinema still house a priceless collection of great films. Levy does indeed have the missing three reels, and his daughter, Naomi, is instantly attracted to A; but Angelopoulos provides a conclusion that’s exceedingly downbeat and pessimistic.
It soon becomes clear that the director is using the filmmaker’s journey merely as a McGuffin to explore the seeds of the Balkan conflict and to decry the savagery taking place in that part of the world. The Sarajevo scenes are profoundly moving.
The film was shot in winter, with plenty of rain, mist and snow, giving it a palpably chilly feel. It’s brilliantly photographed by Yorgos Arvanitis, whose ongoing collaboration with the director has provided some of the most luminous cinematography seen in recent years.
Keitel brings great strength to his catalyst role, and Erland Josephson has an innate nobility as the Sarajevo archivist. (Josephson took over the role when Gian Maria Volonte died during production; the film is dedicated to the late actor).
Maia Morgenstern plays all the principal female characters and successfully gives nuanced shadings to her different roles.
Technical credits are superb down the line, with Eleni Karaindrou’s plaintive music score especially noteworthy.