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Somebody once said that DW Griffith is to blame for having a wide open
horizon, full of possibilities, and settling for melodrama as the
blueprint of the movie-going experience.
However, once in a long while, a film comes along that breaks the mold and shows us once again what can be done. Glimpses only, hints at untapped potential. "2001: A Space Odyssey" is one such example. Fellini's "Satyricon" is another. "Solaris" by Tarkovsky. And so is "Ulysses' Gaze". There are more.
I like to be challenged, even as I enjoy some standard Hollywood fare. I like to be shaken up with the promise of a nudge towards enlightenment. I love to feel awakened from my everyday, sleepwalking mode.
Granted, "Ulysses' Gaze" is NOT for everyone. But to dismiss this film as "another one of those art films", to call it bloated, is an exercise in laziness. And to condemn Angelopoulos of arrogance, well, how about considering the terms confidence and conviction instead? I do not pretend to understand "Ulysses' Gaze", the film is so riddled with ambiguities and leaps back and forth into the realm of the subconscious and the surreal. I just allow myself to go with the flow, and regard a world that is so outside of the grid that it is like watching a transmission from another planet, with real people I identify, sharing genuine affection in small gestures. And even though the English dialogue is lacking at times, there is not a single one of those "Hallmark moments" that seems to pervade in contemporary Hollywood fare.
As for the prolonged landscape scenes, they show parts of the world (Albania, Bulgaria) that are as unknown to me as the bottom of the ocean. If just for this alone, I am hypnotized.
To make the effort, to absorb "Ulysses' Gaze", is a small step towards understanding the ruthless, constant plight of the people of that small corner of the world that is the Balkans. Just one small corner. Imagine.
I have to say that "Ulysses' Gaze" is an incredible film, one of a few by which XX century's great cinema should (and will) eventually be regarded.
With "Ulysses' Gaze", Theo Angelopoulos proves that he is one of the most
influential figures in contemporary cinema. This film explores the idea of
how people must go through their personal Odyssey to reach their
with an unbelievable poetic quality. By exploring the idea of this journey,
Angelopoulos shows how much he is influenced by the poems of Nobel
prize-winning Greek poet George Seferis. The atmosphere of the film is
admittedly extraordinary, aided by the terrific cinematography of Giorgos
Arvanitis, Angelopoulos' collaborator since "Reconstruction"
But the incredibly dense philosophical context of the film does not stop there, as Angelopoulos depicts the tumultuous history of twentieth-century Balkans with extreme precision and artistry.
Harvey Keitel gave the best performance of his career, even managing to speak a few sentences in Greek without sounding too awkward. Maia Morgenstern (as symbols for Penelope, Nausikaa, Circe and Calypso in her multiple roles) and Erland Josephson are also quite good, while Thanassis Vengos gives a tragi-comic note to the film, with his performance as the taxi driver.
The fact that I am Greek (and therefore I am familiar with the political situation and able to identify with events better) admittedly played a major part in my interpretation of "Ulysses' Gaze" and non-Balkan viewers may find it difficult to identify with the film. However, the idea of the journey is universal and it is a pity that Angelopoulos is often dismissed by most Greeks as being too "difficult".
I have remarked that most American film critics are voting a lot of European films too low. I think the reason why is that they have difficulties to understand them because they know too little of the European history. I think that this film is an example of it. You have to have a very deep insight in the history of Greece and the Balkan to understand this film. Beside the beautiful cinematography, there is more to look for an understanding. It's a pity that a lot of Americans are knowing so little of history, because so there critics are missing a lot!
Greek filmmaker A travels back to his native country to show his most recent
film after 35 years in America. However the religious groups protest and he
is forced to abandon his plans. However he then decides to begin a search
for the first pieces of film ever shot in Greece that remain unprocessed.
His quest takes him across changing countries, bounders and war torn
Personal films always run the risk of being too personal and losing the audience. Ulysses' Gaze runs that line very close and crosses it at times. The basic plot sees A travel across many borders and meeting many people. However the meaning of the film seems to be more about one man's obsession damaging the rest of his life and film as a means of recording history. This makes it a bit more difficult but the theme of obsession is well shown and it's A's quest that gripped me for the most part.
The direction is great beautiful scenery, wonderful mesmeric tracking shots and long takes make for a great visual experience. However working in several languages takes it's toll and much of the english narration is weak and clumsy. That said he still paints some great pictures and the themes are mostly well developed. The scene where dialogue is played out in a misty screen for 4 minutes is great while the huge Lenin statue is mesmerising.
However the english is weak and other flaws creep in. The use of the same woman to play several characters is an art movie cliché and just annoyed me as it seemed to serve no purpose. Keitel is not very good. He looks distracted at times like the fact that he doesn't understand the language affected his ability to relate to those speaking it. His english dialogue is clumsily written but he does well for many key scenes.
Overall this didn't deserve to beat Underground as it is too long, has scenes that don't work and dialogue that is clumsy rather than poetic. However it still has masterful themes and visuals that make it worth watching despite the running time.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
SPOILER insofar as some final scenes are mentioned
For me an Angelopoulos experience is unlike anything the contemporary cinema has to offer. His work has a grip that totally mesmerises and leaves me unable to think about much else let alone see another film for several days. Although the pace of this passionately committed cinema is slower than most artists would dare to adopt, the fast forward button is an option I would never contemplate. I embrace the adagio tempo as I would the slow movement of a great symphony, for here indeed we have the time to ponder on what we are being shown, to search for meanings that are not always readily clear. I suspect the reason so many viewers misinterpret the Greek master's work is impatience. Several viewings are essential to unravel these multi-layered visual poems. When "Eternity and a Day" came to our local art moviehouse I had to rush back to see it on a second evening; not enough to assimilate it fully or venture to say what it meant, but sufficient to give me the feeling that, together with "Landscape in the Mist", it could be one of the most profound experiences in any art form in the last quarter of the 20th century. I would not make a similar claim for the rather uneven "Ulysses'Gaze", but at least closer familiarity gives me the confidence to question many of the interpretations I have read. Although it takes the Balkan conflict and in particular the plight of Sarajevo as much of its background it is not a war film. Neither is it a story of a man's journey to find himself. However, anyone observing the different behavioural patterns of men and women will have picked up on the obsessiveness of men with their hobbies as opposed to women. Unlike girls, boys swap cards in the playground to obtain sets. This mania for collection often develops into adulthood until a point can be reached when it might mar a man's relationships with a women. The cinema is littered with examples from George Cole's obsession with kites in the British "Quartet" to the young man's anger when his wife messes up the order of his record collection in "Diner". In "Ullyses' Gaze" we have the profoundest exploration of man's obsession with one enthusiasm to the detriment of everything else in his life. The central character's search for the missing reels of the earliest Balkan film footage is made without regard for his safety through war zones to the extent that he hardly knows where he is at times. "Is this Sarajevo?" he bewilderingly cries to people whose only concern is to escape sniper bullets. Although he meets several women (always played by the same actress) during his odyssey, he is unable to make lasting relationships. In possibly the most revealing scene in the entire film he weeps as he embraces one of his companions "Why are you crying?" she asks. "Because I cannot love you," is the reply. In the background is a huge statue of Lenin about to be shipped on a barge down the Danube for a "collector" we never see; undoubtedly the hero's alter ego. At one point he takes refuge in the memory of his mother (again the same actress) and family. During a remarkable held shot of a room in the family house in Constanza, five years of history are chronicled through three New Year's Eve parties. It is the most marvellous use of truncating time without breaking action that I know. The penultimate scene of the massacre in the mist is sickening. It is about as awful as the ending of Zanussi's "Constans", possibly more so because of the false hope that precedes it. But although this forces the hero to question his obsession, there is no indication that he has conquered it. At moments as dreadful as this the obsession almost becomes a solace.
One of the most beautiful, poetic films ever made. The opening scenes
are pure, unbeatable art. Rather than the unwinding of the complex
narrative itself, it is the visual power of the images that
Angelopoulos offers us that make this work so disturbing and beautiful.
You have to watch the film as a series of paintings, poems,
installations and performances rather than a conventional movie. The
acting is superb, especially Harvey Keitel's performance, one of the
best that this great actor has ever delivered. Especially memorable is
the scene in which an old woman is taken for a ride to her hometown in
Macedonia by Keitel. The woman left Macedonia before the advent of
Communism and is now returning to her country for the first time in
decades. Since her absence, her place has been transformed in a
nightmarish communist city, filled with gray, impersonal, concrete
buildings. We see the woman helpless and bewildered in an environment
that she no longer recognizes, while Keitel goes away. A powerful
metaphor of the fast and tremendous transformations suffered by the
Balkans during the 20th century.
This is above all a lesson in history. A poignant monument to the memory and fate of Europe.
I think this is the good movie and that Angelopoulos was right on target
when he showed his disappointment for not winning the Golden Palm during the
1995 Cannes Film Festival.
Not that the "Underground" was a bad movie. But the Gaze is better. The Gaze touches the source of the problem in the Balkan region. Balkans is a very beautiful region with wonderful landscapes and people with long history. There is where the problem is. There is too much history in the Balkans. Too many cultures, too many religions and too many political conflicts. The lost innocence of the Balkans, which the hero, the director "A" is looking for throughout the movie, is offered to the viewer through the movie's wonderful cinematography. There you see the best of Northern Greece, Macedonia, Albania, Serbia, Bulgaria and Romania. Many cities have different names in different languages. Many people fight with each other too. What remains in the end is the bitter-sweat taste of a region where virtue and malice go hand in hand.
One final remark. I agree with many critics who pointed out that the movie has some technical flaws, including its extremely slow pacing. Yes the movie could have been faster a.s.o. But hey, have you ever seen a better "glance" of the lost innocence of the Balkans?
People who have visited or lived in this region can surely appreciate this motion picture even more.
Justly famous for being one of the last remaining directors still doing
extraordinary cinema, in this film Angelopoulos celebrates the end of
Communism in Eastern Europe, while, at the same time, looking with
touching sensitivity into the lives of people molded by recent (and
less recent) History. Some of the scenes related to History have
already become classic, but, personally, I was more impressed by the
description of the way this History affected individuals and families.
Although the media has covered so amply the tragic events in the
Balkans and (to a lesser extent) the external aspects of people's life,
very little has been said about more human aspects which, after all,
will keep affecting them for many, many years to come. In my opinion,
this film offers the most complete, convincing and respectful take on
the affected people's emotions, memories and relations among the (few)
films, documentaries and books touching on the theme.
The scale is epic both geographically and chronologically and since Angelopoulos manages to move easily between dream and reality (one of the biggest problems facing cinema directors), the personal stories are nicely interwoven with History. Angelopoulos' characteristic long takes, in this instance serve more than giving the film a poetic atmosphere. It is necessary for his goal of looking carefully on individuals' lives and describe their joys and sorrows.
In terms of execution, there were some flaws (especially in technicalities of directing of actors) but, frankly, I don't mind that, if the alternative is perfectly executed films but lacking interesting ideas.
Theo Angelopoulos can take his place in the line with other great artists, as Bergman, Tarkovskii, etc. The piece is long, but not boring at all, though it's not an easy viewing. Viewer has to posess at least rudimentary knowledge about European, and, in particular, Balkan history. TA transform a personal story into a parable of Odissei's journey, a neverending search for one's soul. The shots are beautiful, even with somehow faded film.
Before seeing this film for the first time, I was already familiar with the brilliant CD of the music. I had some idea through the music of what the film portrayed, but was somewhat put off by the three hours devoted to a movie about the Balkans. I just wasn't ready for a drama about this violent and troubling history although I had adored the wonderful film "Before the Rain." Now after viewing the compelling and stunning "Ulysses' Gaze" I can highly recommend both the music and the film. The music and the movie are exquisite partners. The cinematography is truly breathtaking. I was taken with the intense yearning and empathy of Harvey Keitel as the Ulysses of the quest, but especially struck by Maia Morgenstern as the female focus of the film. She is brilliant. And the great Erland Josephson is wonderful to watch. Although the movie is quite long, its richness and unusual perspectives are impressive, thought-provoking, and profound. I think that by the end, as is the main character, the viewer can be wholly changed by this experience.
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