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Trilogy: The Weeping Meadow (PG)

   

     
 

Interview: Theo Angelopoulos

 
     

Dir: Theo Angelopoulos, 2004, Greece/Italy/France, 162 mins

Cast: Alexandra Aidini, Nikos Pourssanidis, Giorgos Armenis, Vasilis Kolovos

The twentieth century - the century of cinema. Whether as an era of great technological and ideological revolution, or one of unprecedented destruction and deracination, the twentieth century has been extensively preserved on celluloid. Rarely, however, does its dark legacy resound with such indelible poetry as it does in the cinema of Greek auteur Theo Angelopoulos.

Mr. Angelopoulos, 70 this year, is embarking on the most ambitious work of his remarkable career. His Trilogy will span the whole of the twentieth century from its dawn in Odessa to its close in New York City, as seen through the eyes of one woman, Eleni. The Weeping Meadow is the first part of Eleni's epic journey, which begins with the death of her mother in the Bolshevik siege of Odessa and ends with that of her two sons in the Greek Civil War. Her life is an onslaught of such intense sorrow that when the first part of the trilogy ends she is left with nothing. Eleni, a monumental role played with heartrending innocence by the young Alexandra Aidini, is less a character than a metaphor, an embodiment of Greece 's tumultuous history and a tragic symbol of humanity's plight in the face of unquenchable grief.

The Weeping Meadow laments the fate of twentieth-century man, uprooted from his communities and values by a brutal modernity; it is an elegy for the refugee, "exiled from everywhere", displaced by the tread of history. Much as the refugees would have done, Angelopoulos built from scratch two entire villages for the film: one a traditional rural settlement, a close-knit farming community led by the patriarch, Spyros (Kolovos); the other a crowded urban slum on the train line to Thessaloniki, the simple farmhouses replaced by multi-storey tenements, the patriarch replaced by trade unions. When Spyros dies, the traditional village dies with him. One unforgettable sequence sees the village flooded and the community literally dissolved. Where once children played and men toiled, now only a treetop and church spire are visible above a watery grave. Eleni, her young husband Alexis and their two boys huddle together in a small rowing boat as their once proud home is washed away. Enshrouding the scene, composer Eleni Karaindrou's timeless score - wisps of plaintive melody suspended over the low hum of strings - sounds a muted requiem.

A deep sense of mourning pervades The Weeping Meadow's every image and its every sound. The breathtaking funeral sequence - Spyros is ferried on his last journey by a vast armada draped in black and reflected in the calm sky-grey water - seems to grieve the loss of a whole way of life. Death is never far away, even in moments of warmth and celebration. The abundance of lively folk music and dance, which in another context would be uplifting and joyful, here, is ineffably sad. Nikos (the superb Giorgios Armenis), a violinist and leading figure of the Popular Front, represents the ideal that through music, dance and resistance, humanity can prevail over great hardship. But despite his efforts (in particular, the dance for the Popular Front in the old run-down beer hall - one of the great Angelopoulos dance sequences), Nikos concedes that "our feeble democracy has committed suicide" and, himself, meets a violent death at the hands of his political opponents.

This single gunshot is the only act of violence to take place while the camera is rolling, and even this occurs off-screen. Another director might have focussed on the horrific carnage of this most violent of centuries; but there is no horror here - only emptiness and pain, stillness and silence. Angelopoulos' long, single-take set pieces capture a starkly twentieth-century waste land with the timelessness of myth, as if the ancient and the modern become one in the lingering deep focus of the camera. There is no cinematic experience quite like that of being enveloped by one of Angelopoulos' awe-inspiring compositions, each one as unexpected as it is emotionally powerful.

The Weeping Meadow stands as a towering achievement, an epic testament to the parched spirit of mankind in the twentieth century and a crushingly beautiful piece of filmmaking. That he continues to find such haunting beauty in scenes of merciless despair is why Theo Angelopoulos remains one of the great poets of cinema.

Simon Gray

 

 

 

 

 
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