Thursday, April 28, 2016

Film Review: Ulysses' Gaze

"Ulysses' Gaze"  **** (out of ****)

The filmmaker tells a story of how once he took a photograph of a landscape and discovered no picture had developed. He changed his position and took another photo and once again no picture developed. Later the filmmaker learns of three reels of film, dated at the beginning of the 20th century, believed to have been lost, taken by the Manaki Brothers, cinema pioneers who brought motion pictures to the Balkans. He then sets out on a journey to find the reels.

The movie is "Ulysses' Gaze" (1997) and was directed by the legendary Greek filmmaker and master of imagery Theo Angelopoulos. Unfortunately, like so many other movies by this master filmmaker, the movie was greeted with a mixed reaction in America. Today the movie is largely forgotten and the name Theo Angelopoulos means nothing.

The story the filmmaker, known in the movie as "A" (Harvey Keitel) tells regarding the photograph may be key for audiences to understand this epic masterpiece. "Ulysses' Gaze" can be interpreted as a story of a man looking for his soul, his imprint on the world, which like the photograph he took is undeveloped. The three reels "A" goes searching for are a metaphor. Here is a story of two "lost" things looking to be found.

"A" (many believe the "A" stands for Angelopoulos) repeatedly says he is on a "personal journey". His "odyssey" (do we dare use that word?) takes him to many lands and at times Mr. Angelopoulos has "A"s journey serve as a parallel to the journey the Manaki Brothers endured. History has a way of repeating itself. During the time of the Manaki Brothers they traveled through the region during the Balkan Wars and World War 1. They encountered refugees and saw destruction. And so does "A". This time it is the Bosnian War. Each country, each city "A" visits, as he follows the footsteps of the Manaki's, his own memories flood back to him of his childhood growing up in the Balkans as well.

Others though have interpreted Mr. Angelopoulos' film as a commentary on the value / meaning of art during war. "Ulysses' Gaze" was filmmed in 1994 in the Balkans. The movie takes us to Greece, Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia and Bosnia, ending in Sarajevo. There is definitely an element of this theme in "Ulysses' Gaze". I see the film as a marriage of both interpretations.

Why, some have asked, does "A" so desperately want to find the three reels? What could be so important about them? Both interpretations answer these questions. In times of war, after witnessing the destruction and devastation mankind can cause, where and how do we seek solace? Is it not through art? Do we not listen to a beautiful piece of music? Read our favorite novel? Watch a movie? Does art not distract us?

We see the effects art has on the war torn city of Sarajevo. Mr. Angelopoulos shows us bombed buildings, dead bodies in the streets, roads destroyed. And soon the fog comes in (is it the fog of war?) and the city returns to the way it was before war. People come out into the streets again. We hear a youth choir play music in the town square. A crowd gathers to listen. In another part of town people are dancing in the streets to music. Art distracts us. If nothing else, that is its value.

On this "personal journey" "A" also encounters three women, all played by the same actress, Maia Morgenstern, who serves as one more piece of his missing soul, a figure of passion and desire long gone in his life. A figure which represents "home", another theme of the movie. That everlasting desire to return "home" but "home" can never be what it once was, especially in the Balkans at a time of war and talk of borders, sadly we are still talking about borders.

There are those that will say this all sounds rather pretentious. That is not an original criticism. It was said of "Ulysses' Gaze" when it was first released in America and has been said of Mr. Angelopoulos' other films including "Landscape in the Mist" (1990) "The Suspended Step of the Stork" (1992) and "Eternity And A Day" (1999). Others that have seen this movie have complained the dialogue is portentous. It is too long (the film runs nearly three hours) and Harvey Keitel was miscast. The late Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert called this movie a "bore" and rated it one star.

That is the risk you run when you refuse to make cookie-cutter art. Critics may have some validity with their complaint regarding Harvey Keitel being cast in the movie. Why was Mr. Keitel cast as a Greek - American filmmaker? Perhaps having an American star would help financing or distribution. However Mr. Keitel is able to project the meditation qualities associated with the character. Some argue Mr. Keitel delivers all of his lines monotone and looks as if he is sleep walking through the performance. To me Mr. Keitel looks like a man waging an inner conflict. A man lost searching for meaning.

The so-called portentous dialogue is supposed to be poetic. The dialogue admittedly does not have a naturalistic quality to it. The characters do not speak in the way "normal people" speak. The dialogue is meant to convey philosophy and the movie's central themes.

Mr. Angelopoulos engaged in a style of filmmaking not on display much anymore. It was fairly common however in art-house in America as late as the 1970s. Mr. Angelopoulos fills his movies with long single takes and vast landscapes with sparse dialogue. The movies are more about mood and emotions. Films like "Ulysses' Gaze" are meditative and reflective. Today the world moves much too fast. People can't stay off their "smart phones". Recently AMC Theaters entertained the idea of allowing people to text during the movie. "Ulysses' Gaze" and films like it ask too much of us. It is not surprising audiences reject it.

But if you are able to fall under the film's spell "Ulysses' Gaze" is an rewarding experience. The movie creates unforgettable visuals. Visuals which have personally stayed with me ever since I saw this movie nearly 15 years ago. One scene includes a group of protesters walking through the empty streets of Greece with candles. There is a light mist. Police come with riot gear. On lookers arrive with umbrellas. All we see are the tops of the umbrellas. It is a visual which recalls something Alfred Hitchcock did in "Foreign Correspondent" (1940). We see refugees standing by the ocean as snow covers the ground. Two of the most impressive moments in the film involves a statue of Lenin being transported by sea and a family gathering eclipsing through five years of history in a few minutes and all done in one take.

My favorite story regarding "Ulysses' Gaze" and Theo Angelopoulos took place at the Cannes Film Festival where the movie was nominated for the Palme d'Or. "Ulysses' Gaze" did not win the top prize instead winning the "Grand Prize of the Jury". When presented with the award Mr. Angelopoulos said, "if this is all you have to give me, I have nothing to say." The winner of the Palme d'Or that year was Emir Kusturica's "Underground" (1997), also about the Balkans and also a masterpiece.

I love the story because it displays what kind of movie "Ulysses' Gaze" is. It is uncompromising. It is confident (some would say narcissistic). Mr. Angelopoulos fully believes in this story and its worth. Directors usually, if not always, set out to make their masterpiece with each new film, with "Ulysses' Gaze" Mr. Angelopoulos must have felt this was his masterpiece and it was not being appreciated.

"Ulysses' Gaze" is a slow moving picture but its rewards are plenty. A meditative, haunting piece of poetry the movie was one of Mr. Angelopoulos' grand achievements and was one of the best films of 1997, when it was released in America. The movie was released on DVD but is no longer in circulation. I own a VHS copy, which you are still able to find at a reasonable price. Some of the prices for a used DVD are ridiculously high.