A self-styled “poetic reckoning” of the past century and “a visionary relationship” with the present one, Theo Angelopoulos’ “The Dust of Time” rambles incoherently across two hours in a mass of embarrassingly arch English dialogue and impenetrable plotting. Largely set in the former Soviet Union and Berlin as it follows a small group of characters across the past 50 years, pic lacks even the visual setpieces of Angelopoulos’ 2004 “The Weeping Meadow,” the first leg of his current triptych on emigration and memory. Even specialty distribution looks bleak for the vet Greek auteur’s latest.
A lost-looking Willem Dafoe plays A., a stressed-out Greek-American helmer who’s behind on his shoot of a movie based on his mother’s longtime love for two men. Cut to (presumably) an extract from the movie, in which his father, Spyros (seen only from the rear as a young man), secretly travels from New York via Berlin to Tashkent in 1953 to find the love of his life, Eleni (Irene Jacob), who’s in a new colony of Greeks founded by Stalin.
After their brief get-together — from which A. was born — Spyros is arrested and Eleni deported to Siberia, where she meets Jacob Levi (Bruno Ganz), a German Jew who falls for her. Characters criss-cross over the years in Toronto and Greece, as the script name-checks big historical events (the Vietnam War, Nixon, the fall of the Berlin Wall), with everyone, including A., finally meeting in Berlin at the dawn of the new millennium.
Even the above synopsis is hard to piece together without the help of production notes, as the film ties itself up in narrative knots and characters deliver lines like “I’m back from a voyage, a voyage of memory.” Occasional chunks of expository dialogue aid comprehension but do nothing to bring the characters alive as people.
As the contempo Spyros, French vet Michel Piccoli punches the clock; Ganz looks either lovelorn or simply out of it; and as the woman loved by both, Jacob manages to look exactly the same (apart from some white hair) across a span of 50 years.
Tech credits are just OK, with occasional misty sequences that strain for Angelopoulos’s earlier visual distinction but look more like parodies of his style. Above all, “Dust” feels like a tired-looking attempt to say something significant by a 73-year-old auteur who has neither anything significant left to say nor the cinematic smarts to say it with.