Thursday, January 5, 2006
The Weeping Meadow, A Purely Cinematic Experience
I would like the world to remember my work as a musical moment, as a musical phrase, suspended, which may reach some people. The important thing in my life is what I do, my work, what I see, feel, what I dream of.
-- Theo Angelopoulos
In The Weeping Meadow, Greek master Theo Angelopoulos (Ulysses' Gaze, Eternity and a Day) takes an elegant, impressionistic look at 30 years of Hellenic history. The first part in a proposed trilogy, the story centers around Eleni (played as an adult by Alexandra Aidini), orphaned as a baby, and Alexis (Nikos Poursanidis), her adopted brother. The film begins in 1919 when the two are children, fleeing with their family from Odessa to Thessaloniki. A few years later, it is revealed that a romance has developed, but Angelopoulos opts not to portray it. Instead, he returns to the teenaged Eleni just after she has given birth to twins, who were promply put up for adoption. Along the way, their mother dies and father Spyros (Vassilis Kolovos), crazed with grief, insists on marrying his adopted daughter. After taking her vows, Eleni, still clad in her wedding dress (which will reappear later), runs away with Alexis and they spend the next several years hiding from Spyros. These vows, incidentally, are not shown. Not long afterwards, they get their children back. This transaction also takes place off-screen. So, why did their adoptive mother agree to return the boys to a couple that can barely take care of themselves? It's impossible to say.
This is a pattern that will be repeated throughout the picture. Something significant transpires, but Angelopoulos either alludes to it or focuses more on its after-effects. Other developments include a voyage to America for Alexis and a sojourn in jail for Eleni (for harboring an insurgent). This cinematic subterfuge, if you will, makes Angelopoulos's twelfth feature as strikingly original as it is frustratingly remote.
But there's a lot to be said for beauty and The Weeping Meadow, shot by Angelopoulos regular Andreas Sinanos, is undeniably beautiful. That said, it's a rather ugly kind of beauty, like the indelible image of a tree bedecked with the bodies of slain sheep. Further, the skies are never sunny, but always overcast. The palette is unrelentingly neutral. In the press notes, Angelopoulos explains that, "The landscape you see is not an external one, it is an internal landscape." He's also fond of long takes and long-shots; in fact, they're his signature. This makes for some stunning sequences, but the avoidance of close-ups--until the final, tragic scene--kept me at arm's length from the protagonists. I never got a good look at the faces of Eleni and Alexis and I would have liked to. In fact, I needed to in order to understand them better and to sympathize with them more. This is not a reflection on the actors, all of whom are quite good--especially Giorgos Armenis as their insurgent friend and protector, Nikos the Fiddler--but on the way in which they were filmed. Too often, I felt as if I were watching symbols rather than people. Eleni and Alexis may well stand for all Greeks in exile, but I don't see why they couldn't have been granted greater dimension. Not once do we see them eat or laugh; they rarely even talk. (We never see them make love either, but the affection between the two is never in doubt.) Granted, many American films, both independent and mainstream, often show and tell far more than necessary--too many close-ups, too much exposition--but the opposite approach poses its own set of problems.
Misgivings aside, I was engaged by The Weeping Meadow and the three hours passed relatively quickly. It helped that the score by frequent Angelopoulos collaborator Eleni Karaindrou is so hauntingly lovely. And it isn't mere window dressing as Alexis is a musician. Angolopoulos: "Music in my films does not accompany the narrative musically. It is a dramaturgical element, it narrates, it participates. It is an integral part of the films' text. Without it, there would be a lack of something essential. In this sense music is an actor in the movie, a living element." On the strength of its use in this film, I'll buy that--it was my favorite character! I'm not sure that's such a bad thing either, although I doubt it was his intent.
For those looking for a purely cinematic experience, The Weeping Meadow is essential viewing. Theo Angelopoulos is not attempting to duplicate reality or to create yet another conventional historical epic. Much of what takes place is perfectly possible, yet eminently improbable. He presents, instead, a personal approach to history. His history. Further, the films of this Palme d'Or-winning director are rarely screened in Seattle and this may be one of your few chances to see his work on the big screen.
The Weeping Meadow plays at The Northwest Film Forum (1515 12th Ave. between Pike and Pine on Capitol Hill) 1/13-19, Fri.-Thurs. at 7pm and Sat.-Sun. at 3:30pm.