They enter the city slowly: a quiet, sad, stately group of actors who, for years, have been roaming the countryside, performing Perisiadis’ hackneyed but wildly popular folk tale “Golfo the Shepherdess.”
Their names and fates, now and past, bizarrely mirror the major figures in Aeschylus’ “Oresteia”: Agamemnon, Orestes, Elektra. They are “The Travelling Players” (at the Monica 4-Plex), central figures of a towering modern masterpiece by Greek filmmaker Theo Angelopoulos.
As the players arrive it is 1952. Suddenly, as they walk with desultory slowness through the streets, we are back in 1939. Instead of campaign trucks for Marshal Papagos, a visit from Goebbels is being announced. For the next four hours, we will watch this troupe as they pass in and out of present and past, through the major upheavals of a violent era.
We will watch them struggle, starve, betray and even kill each other; dance in the mountains; cavort beachside for British troops; mad with hunger, stalk a solitary chicken in the snow; sneak through streets aflame with rebellion and riot. We will see history as they do, from the edges and far away.
“The Travelling Players” is one of the major neglected movie masterpieces of our times. First made in 1975 and a legendary work in Europe for years--winner of 15 major festival awards and innumerable “best film” polls--it is receiving its first Los Angeles commercial release beginning today, for one week only.
Because the film is so extraordinary, and so easily misunderstood and undervalued, some misconceptions have to be attacked. “The Travelling Players” is not pretentious, opaque, self-indulgently static and slow--though some will definitely see it that way.
Part of the confusion involves Angelopoulos’ unique style: the long-take, moving camera mise-en-scene , which he takes to such harrowingly beautiful extremes--using only 80 shots in nearly four hours. This austerity will madden some audiences.
But, watching “The Travelling Players,” our emotional temperature changes, cools out. We are not jerked from point to point, hammeringly, insistently. We have to do our own editing, become more intellectually and emotionally alert. Each scene is a memorable, masterful set-piece. For those willing to do so--and Angelopoulos’ strongest partisans include brilliant colleagues like Bernardo Bertolucci and Akira Kurosawa--the rewards of this movie are intense.
In “The Travelling Players,” the characters are less individuals than groups, less groups than figures of the Earth, lost in what surrounds them: the land, the sky and the sea. Angelopoulos--and his virtuoso cinematographer Giorgio Arvanitis--give us bewitchingly lovely landscapes, made increasingly significant because of the terrifying events enacted against them. National betrayals echo personal ones. The Metaxas dictatorship falls with its Hitlerite allies; the resistance fighters are duped into giving up their arms; the British assume greater control; the left splits; finally Papagos, a scant improvement, takes over.
“The Travelling Players,” melancholy, profound and humane, is a great anti-fascist epic. Incredibly, most it was shot in a country under the tyranny of a military junta. The ellipsis and indirection, even the parallels to Aeschylus, were all part of an elaborate strategy to dupe the censors and speak to the audience, right over their heads. The film, one of the biggest popular hits in Greek history, did just that--though the “colonels” fell before its release. (Ironically, some “progressive” American critics have proven just as dense as the fascist censors.)
I haven’t mentioned actors--which may seem a contradiction. All of them, Eva Kotamanidou, Aliki Georgouli, Stratos Pichis, and Yannis Firios--the frail old accordionist who opens the show--are perfect. Yet “The Travelling players” is far more an ensemble effort: a poetic vision of a world in all its facets, human and inanimate, living and dead.
Poetry in the movies is always rare; Angelopoulos’ is to be particularly cherished because it is wedded to such profound intelligence, such stunning sensitivity and courage. “The Travelling Players” (Times-rated Mature for nudity, sexual scenes and adult themes) has the kind of high artistic significance that “Intolerance,” “The Rules of the Game,” or “Greed” had in their day. A classic of our times, it is a work whose purpose, as Joseph Conrad and D. W. Griffith claimed for themselves, is to make you hear and feel: above all, to make you see.
‘THE TRAVELLING PLAYERS’
A Kino International presentation of a Giorgios Papalios production. Producer Giorgios Samiotis. Director/script Theodoros Angelopoulos. Camera Giorgios Arvanitis. Art direction/sets/costumes Mikes Karapiperis. Editors Takis Davropoulos, Giorgios Triandfillou. Music Loulianos Kilaidonis. Costumes Giorgios Patsas. With Eva Kotamanidou, Aliki Georgouli, Stratos Pachis, Petros Zarkadis, Yannis Firios. In Greek with English subtitles.
Running time: 3 hour, 50 minutes.