The Bleak and the Beautiful Collide in Theo Angelopoulos’s Ornate Films


It’s hard to tell whether the cinema of Greek director Theo Angelopoulos (1935–2012) was a prophecy or a throwback. With their immense canvases, ornate camera moves, and melding of the political with the personal, these films belonged to the tradition of engaged aestheticism that emerged in the Sixties and Seventies, exemplified by the likes of Bernardo Bertolucci and Francesco Rosi. But beyond that, they also demonstrated a radical, playful patience that helped form the cornerstone of what some would now call “Slow Cinema.” (Current practitioners of the mode, like Lav Diaz and Lisandro Alonso, owe him everything.)

Angelopoulos made Big, Important, Serious films, usually about Big, Important, Serious subjects: His 1975 masterpiece, The Traveling Players, follows a theater troupe as it winds its way in and out of Greek history during WWII and postwar reconstruction; his remarkable 1995 epic Ulysses’ Gaze (starring Harvey Keitel) tackles Eastern Europe in the wake of the Soviet collapse; and his 1998 Palme d’Or winner, Eternity and a Day, is set against the Albanian refugee crisis consuming the Balkans at the time.

But Angelopoulos avoids the cheap emotions and easy resolutions so often affixed to Important Films: His storylines are oblique, his characters opaque, and his worldview often impossibly bleak. So why, then, are these films so damned beautiful? Maybe it’s because they’re so gloriously cinematic. In an Angelopoulos film, meaning often comes from what we’re actually seeing onscreen: the distance between characters and objects, the vastness of the landscapes, or the way the camera glides, sometimes traversing decades in a single tracking shot.

These visual qualities make it all but necessary that Angelopoulos’s work be seen on a big screen; add to that the fact that many of his films are still nearly impossible to find on video, and MoMI’s career-spanning retro begins to feel even more momentous.

‘Eternity and History: The Cinema of Theo Angelopoulos’

July 8-24

Museum of the Moving Image