The title of Theo Angelopoulos’ monumental, magnificent “Ulysses’ Gaze” refers to the master Greek filmmaker’s longing for the innocent vision of the novice. This longing, in turn, gives way to his larger concern with the tragic history of the Balkans, the ongoing chaos in the former Yugoslavia, in particular.
His near three-hour epic is archetypal Angelopoulos: great, stunning vistas unfolding at a stately pace. Angelopoulos is literally a modern Homer: Virtually all his films are odysseys multilayered in meaning. As such, they are totally demanding and can be enthralling if you’re able to--and prepared to--give yourself over to them--totally.
Harvey Keitel plays a Greek-born American filmmaker known only as A. who returns after a 35-year absence to his native country for a presentation of his newest film. We are told that the film is extremely controversial for its religious themes--think of Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ,” which is based on Niko Kazantzakis’ novel--and this provokes a demonstration in his hometown.
Amid the uproar, A. is actually much more concerned with tracking down three unaccounted-for reels of film taken by the Manakia brothers, real-life figures who, beginning early in the century and for some 60 years, recorded life throughout the Balkans without regard to national borders or ethnic politics and turmoil. We also learn that the brothers operated a theater in Monastir (now Bitolj) until it was destroyed in 1939.
A. becomes increasingly obsessed with the need to track down those reels as a way of revitalizing himself, and his search takes him all over the Balkans, climaxing in strife-torn Sarajevo itself. A.'s odyssey becomes for Angelopoulos, whose principal writer for years has been Italy’s distinguished Tonino Guerra, an expression of his love for the cinema and a contemplation of the role of the artist in times of war. It also demonstrates the power of art as an act of defiance in the face of danger and devastation.
A.'s travels take us into such unfamiliar territory you are likely to have trouble following his itinerary (neatly outlined and traced on a map in the press kit) from Korita, Albania, to Skopje, Bucharest, Belgrade and Sarajevo. It is actually not that important to Angelopoulos’ themes and concerns that you know at all times precisely where you are--A. doesn’t always know that himself. However, a couple of title cards and a little bit of soundtrack narration could make the film more accessible to American audiences. In Sarajevo, he meets the genial, kindly head of the local film archive (Erland Josephson, a favorite from Ingmar Bergman’s films).
Along the way, A. has encounters with several women, all of them played by intense, darkly beautiful Maia Morgenstern; in two sequences, Keitel becomes the Manakia brothers and Morgenstern their wives.
Like Fellini, Angelopoulos, working with his formidable cinematographer Yorgos Arvanitis, is a creator of memorable images, and the sight of an immense, dismantled statue of Lenin laid out on a tugboat heading down the Danube is especially striking as well as obviously symbolic.
“Ulysses’ Gaze” represents, through Keitel and Angelopoulos, the teaming of two world-class risk-takers. Keitel is more than up to the challenge of playing Angelopoulos’ clear alter ego, a sensitive, passionate man given to poetic reflections.
Verging on the surreal, “Ulysses’ Gaze” creates its own universe in which loss, suffering and longing are expressed with the utmost dazzling beauty and made more stirring with the accompaniment of Eleni Karaindrou’s melancholy score. Angelopoulos has written that “there comes a moment when the filmmaker begins to doubt his own capacity to see things, when he no longer knows if his gaze is right and innocent.” Judging from “Ulysses’ Gaze,” Angelopoulos has nothing to worry about.
* Unrated. Times guidelines: some violence, language, too somber and complicated for children.
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Harvey Keitel: A.
Maia Morgenstern: “Ulysses’ ” wives
Eland Josephson: Sarajevo Film Library Curator
Yorgos Michalakopoulos: A.'s journalist friend
A Fox Lorber release of a Franco-Italo-Greek co-production: Paradis Films-La Generale d’Images-La Sept Cinema-Giorgio Silvagni (Paris); Basic Cinematografica-Instituto Luce-RAI (Rome) and Theo Angelopoulos-Greek Film Center-Mega Channel (Athens) with the participation of Canal Plus. Director Theo Angelopoulos. Executive producer Costas Lambropoulos. Executive producer (Paris) Marc Soustras. Co-writers Tonino Guerra and Petros Markaris. Co-adapted with Giorgio Silvagni. Cinematographer Yorgos Arvanitis. Editor Yannis Tsitsopoulos. Costumes Yorgos Ziakas. Music Eleni Karaindrou. Set designer Yorgos Patsasn and Midrag Mile Nicolic. Running time: 2 hours, 55 minutes.
* Exclusively at the Nuart for one week, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 478-6379.