Greek history is, uh, tragic -- that is the simple message of Theo Angelopoulos' 12th feature, "Trilogy: The Weeping Meadow," a repetitive threnody sans harmonization or variations played out against striking but increasingly decorative visuals over three hours. First leg of a planned three-pic examination of the Greek experience in the 20th century, the movie plays like a career summation in which the 68-year-old writer-director has simply run out new ideas. Even some of Angelopoulos' arthouse coterie may find this one hard to defend passionately, though fests and niche distribs will doubtless give it screen space. It's his first pic since the 1998 Cannes Palme d'Or winner, "Eternity and a Day."

Greek history is, uh, tragic — that is the simple message of Theo Angelopoulos’ 12th feature, “Trilogy: The Weeping Meadow,” a repetitive threnody sans harmonization or variations played out against striking but increasingly decorative visuals over three hours. First leg of a planned three-pic examination of the Greek experience in the 20th century, the movie plays like a career summation in which the 68-year-old writer-director has simply run out new ideas. Even some of Angelopoulos’ arthouse coterie may find this one hard to defend passionately, though fests and niche distribs will doubtless give it screen space. It’s his first pic since the 1998 Cannes Palme d’Or winner, “Eternity and a Day.”

Though pic clocks in as one of the veteran Hellene’s longer works (on a par with “Ulysses’ Gaze” but shorter than “The Travelling Players”), it’s a generally easy sit until the later going, where the magisterial morphs into pure mannerism and it’s increasingly clear that this is a case akin to the emperor’s clothes. Charitably, one could say this is a deliberately straight-arrow opening to a trilogy that — if it’s ever completed — will grow in richness and stature. But so far, the omens aren’t favorable.

Story centers on Greek refugees from Odessa who arrive in their ethnic homeland around 1919 after fleeing the Bolshevik revolution in Russia. Striking opening shot, a single take of some five minutes, shows the darkly-garbed group arriving in the estuary of a great river in the Gulf of Thessaloniki, northern Greece, as a voice (Angelopoulos himself) reads what sounds like the first paragraphs of the movie’s treatment.

To an offscreen inquisitor, the leader of the group, Spyros (Vasilis Kolovos), explains who they are, direct to camera. Spyros’ family includes his young son (called Alexis in press notes, but never named on screen), and a girl, Eleni, aged about 3, whom they took pity on in Odessa and brought with them.

Cut to some years later, and a whole refugee village has sprung up — houses with mud brick walls and tiled roofs, cattle, horses, a church, school, even musicians. Impressive set, built outside Thessaloniki, is the film’s showpiece, and Angelopoulos succinctly evokes the atmosphere of a whole self-subsistent community as d.p. Andreas Sinanos’ camera slowly pans. Parallels with the early, classic pics of Magyar director Miklos Jancso — substituting the plains of northern Greece for the flat Hungarian puszta — have never been stronger. There’s a bracing feeling of being plunged into a living, breathing world.

Alas, pic soon narrows its focus just to Spyros’ family, dominated by the paterfamilias himself, wife Danae (Thalia Argyriou), and the two kids. Flash forward another unspecific amount of time, and Eleni, now in her mid-teens, is recovering from giving birth to twins. Their father is Spyros’ son, who’s grown up outside his father’s shadow; nevertheless, the family has sent the babies to Thessaloniki to be adopted.

There’s little time to connect emotionally with the young lovers’ story — kind of “Romeo and Juliet” crossed with Greek tragedy — before the grown son (Nikos Poursanidis) and Eleni (Alexandra Aidini) are seen fleeing from the village, the latter still in her white bridal dress. They hitch a ride to Thessaloniki with village fiddler Nikos (Yorgos Armenis) and his musician pals.

Only when the now-aged Spyros tries to hunt them down does it become totally clear that Eleni is a runaway bride from the old man, who decided to marry her after the death of his wife. In the first of several stretches of declamatory dialogue in the movie that tangentially recall ancient Greek myth and drama, Spyros, like some modern-day Menelaus, rails against the pair (read: Helen and Paris).

As the itinerant musicians befriend the young couple and offer Spyros’ son a job as an accordionist, pic enters its most involving section, largely thanks to a warm, very human perf by Armenis (a veteran actor-writer-director in legit) as Nikos. In the absence of a strong central figure and with the young lovers reduced to little more than shuttlecocks on a sea of historical events, Nikos briefly provides what “Meadow” signally lacks — a well-drawn, proactive character auds can identify with.

By the one-hour mark, however, pic has largely jettisoned Nikos and settled into a predictable rhythm, as Eleni and Spyros’ son are bounced hither and yon by events: unions and workers forming a popular front, the rise of fascism in Europe (during which Spyros’s son leaves for the U.S.), the arrival of WWII and Greece’s subsequent Civil War. During the last section, Eleni’s sons, natch, find themselves fighting on opposing sides.

Pic ends on a tragic note, in the late ’40s. The next two segs of the trilogy (“The Third Wing,” “Return”), still unfinanced, are planned to take the story up the present day in New York.

Though there isn’t a blue sky in the whole movie, and Angelopoulos’ regular visual paraphernalia like mist and rain are all present and correct, the movie as a whole lacks the umbra and claustrophobia that’s as much of a turn-on for the helmer’s admirers as it’s a turn-off for his detractors. Outdoor sequences show a vibrant, detailed feel for refugee life, with d.p. Sinanos seamlessly taking over lensing duties from Angelopoulos’ regular cinematographer, Yorgos Arvanitis. Even in the boxy aspect ratio of 1.66, these are impressive and resonant.

Individual set pieces, too, are visually arresting: the first arrival of the refugees in the waterlogged plain, Spyros’ river funeral procession with a flotilla of black-flagged rowboats, and the flooded settlement, with boats drifting in a slow ballet between the houses’ roofs. However, interleaved with these are more abstract images — a tree hung with dead sheep, repeated use of rows of white bed sheets hanging by the sea — whose meaning is obtuse and function increasingly meaningless. (Film buffs will also need to suppress giggles at a clumsy reference to Zbigniew Cybulski’s famous death scene in “Ashes and Diamonds.”)

Most tragically, there’s an intellectual emptiness at the center of the pic, as if the helmer has waited a lifetime to commit this magnum opus to film but found himself reduced to recycling his greatest hits: water imagery, weather imagery, references to earlier plots (“The Travelling Players,” “Days of ’36,” etc.) and increasingly annoying sequences where musicians are brought on to fill empty spaces.

Sparse dialogue is too often just expository, sketching personal and historical background for the viewer. When it aspires to the declamatory style of ancient Greek tragedy (Spyros’ anger, Eleni’s grief), its content is mundane, lacking both weight and poetry.

Film is the first by Angelopoulos in a while without foreign actors. Aside from Armenis, and Mihalis Yannatos as his clarinetist buddy, perfs are bland or distanced. As Angelopoulos’ first female protag since his first feature, “Reconstruction” (1970), Aidini is shackled in a reactive, largely passive role; Poursanidis, as Spyros’ son, is even more of an enigma, and Kolovos, as the paterfamilias, no more than a tragic icon.

Regular composer Eleni Karaindrou contribs a marginally less idiomatic score than usual but one that’s still emotionally involving. More of her music would be welcome, though it still wouldn’t disguise the artistic vacuum at pic’s heart.

Trilogy: The Weeping Meadow

Greece - France

Production

A Theo Angelopoulos, Greek Film Centre, Attica Art Prods., Hellenic Broadcasting Corp. (Greece)/BAC Films, Intermedias, Arte France (France) production, with participation of Canal Plus (France), Classic, Istituto Luce, RAI Cinema, Network Movie, ZDF/Arte. (International sales: Celluloid Dreams, Paris.) Produced by Theo Angelopoulos, Fivi Ekonomopoulos. Executive producer, Nikos Sekeris. Directed by Theo Angelopoulos. Screenplay, Angelopoulos, Tonino Guerra, Petros Markaris, Giorgio Silvagni.

Crew

Camera (color), Andreas Sinanos; editor, Yorgos Triantafyllou; music, Eleni Karaindrou; art directors, Yorgos Patsas, Kostas Dimitriadis; costume designer, Ioulia Stavridou; sound (DTS Stereo), Marinos Athanasopoulos. Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (competing), Feb. 11, 2004. Running time: 178 MIN.

With

Eleni - Alexandra Aidini Spyros' Son - Nikos Poursanidis Nikos, the Fiddler - Yorgos Armenis Spyros - Vasilis Kolovos Cassandra - Eva Kotamanidou Woman in Coffee House - Toula Stathopoulou Zissis the Clarinetist - Mihalis Yannatos Danae - Thalia Argyriou Teacher - Grigoris Evangelatos

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