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A group of traveling players peregrinates through Greece attempting to perform the popular erotic drama Golfo The Shepherdess. In a first level the film focuses on the historical events between 1939 and 1952 as they are experienced by the traveling players and as they affect the villages which they visit: The last year of Metaxas' fascist dictatorship, the war against the Italians, the Nazi occupation, the liberation, the civil war between left and right wingers, the British and American interventionism in the Greek politics. In a second level the characters live their own drama of jealousy and betrayal, with its roots in the ancient myth of the House of Atreus. Agamemnon, a Greek refugee from Minor Asia, goes to war against the Italians in 1940, joins the resistance against the Germans, and is executed by them after being betrayed by Clytemnestra and Aegisthos. Aegisthos, Clytemnestra's lover, is an informer and collaborator working with the German occupiers. Orestes, son of ... Written by
Like Fellini filmed in slo-mo by Tarkovsky: baffling, frustrating, awe-inspiring.
Theo Angelopoulos is one of the acknowledged masters of cinema, and yet he remains little seen: an acquired taste. It is easy to see why. Unlike other greats, like, say, Renoir and Mizoguchi, who, though firmly rooted in their own national cultures, present characters and narratives generally recognisable, Angelopoulos is forbiddingly national (as opposed to nationalistic: there are echoes of everyone from Fellini to Bunuel to Ozu in this film) in his outlook. Watching this film without any knowledge of Greek history, literature or mythology can be very frustrating - every time you see a character, event, composition, you know it alludes to something else, but because you don't know what, you feel like you're missing the point of the film. La Regle Du Jeu is enriched by a deep knowledge of French History, but can be enjoyed by anyone with an interest in cinema, stories or humanity. Angelopoulos' films don't have this surface level of entertainment - everything is symbolic and loaded.
Does this mean that the only enjoyment of the film can be a cold admiration of form? No. Even if we don't understand the specifics, we can recognise the horrors of a nation beset by continual tyranny. The metaphor of a theatrical troupe, travelling throughout Greece, is subtly used. Rather than actors, or commentators on history, as we'd expect, they're always continually observing, on the margins. Modern Greece is a labyrinth - the film is dense with streets, corridors, doors, offering no escape, just an endless loop, leading to dead ends of time and space. Fascism has exploded these notions in its denying of history and its attempt to homogenise space, and the same frame can hold events decades apart.
The travelling players are exiles in their own country. Like Bunuel's discreet diners, they can never finish their play: when they do it results in death, stagnation, and a break up of the troupe. They're bewildered like Pirandello's Six Characters, not necessarily searching for an author (they have one - Greek history), but trying to escape him. The great irony is that they cannot remain untainted by the times - one's son is a partisan, another is an informer.
Angelopoulos' use of the medium really does inspire awe. His slow, long takes, long-shot compositions and camera movements, open the mind to new conceptions of time and space, forbidden by the ideologies ruling Greece. The film is full of remarkable, shocking set-pieces; austere quiet bursting into Fellini-esque disruption; revels and song turning into murder and horror; editing so spare that each cut becomes a jolt. Songs, birds and water are the driving metaphors here: how fascism appropriates our minds, imagination and especially our voice; how our reaching for freedom is always curtailed; how history is a never-changing trampling on the vulnerable.
Angelopoulos is a modernist - he still believes in the power of witness, and the ability to assert truth, which is refreshing in these times where irony is confused with indifference. Compare THE TRAVELLING PLAYERS with Nabokov's Bend Sinister, similarly concerned with artists in a totalitarian system. Angelopoulos' systematic attempt to shore fragments against the ruins is denied by Nabokov, who bleakly suggests through fragmentation, distortion and disrupton that there is no shoring, that the only plausible rebellion is madness. Angelopoulos' view is, in many ways, more reassuring.
The film is not without its problems - a raped woman stands up to recite the rape of Greece in a queasy monologue; hateful royalists are coded homosexual to suggest sterility and death; there is, at times, a humourless self-righteousness and portentousness to the film that grates. But, before he slipped into the vague artiness of his later works, its astonishing to think that people could make films like this. In the way that you may not hold Finnegan's Wake or the Sistine Chapel to your heart, THE TRAVELLING PLAYERS is unloveable, but it's a rare experience in the cinema of the sublime. (And, believe me, once you've attuned yourself to Angelopoulos' rhythm, you won't want those four hours to end)
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