To vlemma tou Odyssea (1995)
A, a Greek filmmaker living in exile in the United States, returns to his native Ptolemas to attend a special screening of one of his extremely controversial films. But A's real interest lies elsewhere--the mythical reels of the very first film shot by the Manakia brothers, who, at the dawn of the age of cinema, tirelessly criss-crossed the Balkans and, without regard for national and ethnic strife, recorded the region's history and customs. Did these primitive, never-developed images really exist? If so, where are they? - "Why A? It's an alphabetical choice. Every filmmaker remembers the first time he looked through the viewfinder of a camera. It is a moment that is not so much the discovery of cinema--but the discovery of the world. But 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." --Theo Angelopoulos
An exiled filmmaker finally returns to his home country where former mysteries and afflictions of his early life come back to haunt him once more.
- In "Ulysses' Gaze" ("To Vlemma Tou Odyssea," 1995), a Greek-American filmmaker, not named in the film, and only referred to as "A" in the script, is on a quest to find three lost reels of undeveloped film, the first ever produced in Greece, from around 1905. These films are in fact the first cinematographic record, the first "gaze" in the philosophical sense, into the soul of the region. As the title implies, the story will take the form of an odyssey that begins in Greece and continues through Albania (the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, known to the Greeks as the Republic of Skopje), Bulgaria, Rumania, Serbia, and finally Bosnia.
The film opens with an old black and white silent film that shows some village women weaving. In a voice-over, Harvey Keitel comments, "Weavers in Avdella, a Greek Village, 1905, the first film made by the brothers Miltiades and Yannakis Manakis, [who filmed] all the ambiguities, the contrasts, the conflicts in this area of the world." For those of you who would watch "Ulysses' Gaze" only to find out if these three films ever existed, you now know the answer, and you don't have to watch to the end. But if you follow the advice of the Greek poet C. P. Cavafi, in his poem "Ithaca" (1911): "When you start on your journey to Ithaca, / then pray that the road is long, / full of adventure, full of knowledge", then you will enjoy the next 180 minutes of the journey.
Following this antique piece of film showing the weaving village women, and before the opening titles, we see a small masterpiece of a scene, as only Angelopoulos can produce. An old man, standing on a quay, is getting his old-type camera ready to film a sailing ship coming out of the harbor of Salonika. The old man is Yannakis Manakis, and the scene, which took place in 1954, is recounted to "A" out of the camera's field of view by an old man who had been Manakis's assistant at that time. The assistant is not shown as he would have been at the time, but as he is today. While we watch Manakis finish preparing his camera and his assistant standing behind him recounting the event, the films takes on color. As the blue ship appears on the right side of the screen, Manakis is struck by a heart attack and collapses in a chair. The assistant walks toward the right of the screen, all the while continuing with his story. The camera scans to the right, and we discover "A" standing. "A" walks leftward, passing the point where we had just seen Manakis and his camera, but they are no longer there. We continue following "A" walking to the left, until the blue ship reappears in the field of view. The camera now follows the ship, slowly zooming in, until the ship stands still and fills the screen. Eventually, the camera stops tracking the ship and it disappears to the left. We are contemplating a blue-grey sea that dissolves into a sky of the same color. In his long shot, Angelopoulos has covered sixty years, and set the tone for the whole journey.
As the film begins, "A" (Harvey Keitel) has arrived in a rainy Florina, a town in northern Greece, where one of his films is to be shown. The film is somehow controversial, and religious fanatics plan to demonstrate against its screening. One of the screening organizers advises "A" to leave town for his own safety. As "A" is about to enter a taxi, a woman (Maia Morgenstern) in her thirties passes him by and "A," apparently stunned, follows her, muttering to himself: "I did not expect you here." She disappears between the groups of demonstrators and counter-demonstrators who face each other. Morgenstern, who plays the roles of four different women in the film, is "A's" old love whom he left years ago, and therefore, a Penelope figure. The two groups rush toward each other, but the resulting confrontation is left unseen.
Cut to a dreary winter day, with snow on the ground. "A" arrives at an Albanian border crossing in a taxi. While the taxi driver (Thanassis Vengos) tends to the police formalities, "A" notices an older lady (Dora Volanaki) with a suitcase standing nearby. "A" walks toward her, and she asks if he could give her a lift to a town over the border. She plans to visit her sister, whom she has not seen for forty-five years. "A" agrees and helps her into the taxi. Just then, a group of people arrives in a bus: they are illegal Albanian immigrants who were rounded up by the Greek police and are being return to their home country. As "A's" taxi proceeds across the Albanian side of the border, we see all along the road, in a desolate and gloomy snowy landscape, hundreds of Albanians standing like statues, waiting for a chance to sneak into Greece. The taxi reaches the town of Korytsa, stops in the middle of an empty square, and "A" helps the lady out. The taxi leaves, and a tracking-back long shot reveals the isolation and desolation of the town.
The taxi continues toward the Macedonian border, but it has to stop because of snow on the road. The friendly taxi driver sensibly decides against a perilous crossing, and settles down, waiting for the snow to be cleared. He engages "A" in a conversation while listening to Greek music and drinking. He says, "Greece is dying.We are dying as a people," reflecting on the present situation of Greece and its people.
"A" arrives, apparently on a bus in Monastiri, in the Republic of Skopje. He is looking for the original home of the Manakis brothers. He stands in front of the door, and the film dissolves into old black and white footage made around 1956 by the Manakis brothers. The house is now a museum, and "A" enters. Inside, he briefly meets with a young lady (Maia Morgenstern), who gives him the cold shoulder. Later that evening, on the train to Skopje, "A" meets her again. He explains in detail his journey's purpose, and we learn that the young woman's name is Kali, which stands for Calypso, the goddess who held Ulysses captive for seven years on her island, Ogygia.. Kali tells "A" that the Manakis' films are not in the Skopje film archives. In Skopje, "A" is continuing on by train to Bulgaria and Kali is on the platform. "A" recounts to her an event he witnessed two years earlier on the island of Delos. The train has started leaving the station and is picking up speed. Kali is running on the platform alongside the train, fascinated by "A's" story. Finally, "A" grabs her and pulls her aboard. He continues his story, and Kali is so moved by it that she does not resist "A's" passionate embrace. She will now share "A's" journey.
The train pulls in the station at the border. "A" and Kali are asked to step down -- apparently, there is something wrong with "A's" passport. Past and present mix once more: the train station alters and "A" finds himself being interrogated by an official dressed in turn-of-the-century clothing. "A" is now being addressed as if he were Yannakis Manakis. He is accused of sedition against the state of Bulgaria.. Although "A" protests that he does not understand, he is blindfolded and taken before a firing squad. At the last moment, a messenger arrives: King Ferdinand of Bulgaria has commuted Yannakis Manakis' sentence to exile until the war (The Balkan war of 1912-13) is over.
"A" is reunited with Kali outside the contemporary police station. They board another train for Bucharest. As they step off the train, a young women (Mania Papadimitriou) in 1940's dress comes and addresses "A" as if he were a child. "A," in turn, calls her "Mother," and he apologizes for missing her funeral. Once more, we find ourselves in a time-warp, where "A" has returned to "his" childhood. They board a bus that takes them to their old home in Kostantza, on the Black Sea. They enter the house, where all of "A's" deceased "relatives" are dancing. He greets each one in turn, as a well-mannered child would. A man in rags appears in the room: it is his "father" returning from prison. The celebration of the father's return and of the New Year begins. We are in 1945, and there has been a temporary switch in the roles: "A," as Telemachus, is greeting the return of his "father," Ulysses. This is a familiar style that Angelopoulos has used in "The Travelling Players," where this single scene, lasting some fifteen minutes in one continuous shot, covers five years as the characters waltz through the 1948 arrest of an uncle, to the 1950 New Year's Eve celebration, when the family is finally allowed to return to Greece. Through this scene, we now understand that "A's" memory has now merged with that of the Manakis' brothers.
"A" awakens in a contemporary hotel in Kostantza, with Kali at his side. They go to the harbor, where a huge statue of Lenin is being loaded on a barge, in preparation for traveling up the Danube to Germany. A tearful "A" tells Kali, "I cannot love you," just as Homer's Ulysses tells Calypso upon leaving her. "A" climbs aboard the barge, leaving a bewildered Kali on the quay. As the barge proceeds up the Danube River, groups of people on the riverbank stand in awe, many crossing themselves. This long traveling shot, accompanied by ethereal music, reminds us of the taxi ride in Albania. Toward the end of this shot, Arvanitis' camera, as if looking into Lenin's soul, circles slowly around the broken head of the statue, as a meditation on a ruin of the past.
Arriving in Belgrade, "A" is met by his old friend, Nikos (Giogos Michalakopoulos) who, paraphrasing Angelopoulos' favorite poet, George Seferis, greats him with, "When God created the World, the first thing he made were journeys." To which "A" answers, "and then came doubt and nostalgia." They go to an old people's home, where they meet with an old man who was once in charge of the Belgrade Film Archives. The old man says that the Menakis' films are now with one of his friends at the Sarajevo Film Archives. Nikos and "A" end up in a café, drinking to the memories of old friends, and continue their voyage into nostalgia while drinking in the street. Obviously, Belgrade has become Ulysses' descent into Hades in the Odyssey, where he went to meet old friends and get instructions to complete his journey. "A" decides that despite the danger, he must go to Sarajevo. Nikos tells him to follow one of the many rivers which lead to it.
Night time. "A," asleep in an old shack, is being awakened by a young lady (Maia Morgenstern, yet again). They are in Philipoupolis, Bulgaria, and the year is 1915. Morgenstern now assumes the role of Homer's Circe, the sorceress. She leads "A" to the river, and they escape in a small boat. The next scene shows them on a bright morning, floating down the river. The couple eventually lands on the shore of a village in ruins, and they walk to a particular house, which used to be the woman's. The house, gutted by a conflagration, is in ruins. The woman, grief-stricken, desperately calls out, "Vania!" the name of her husband, who must have perished during the village's destruction. In the debris, "A" finds a picture frame with a turn-of-the-century wedding picture, which most likely is that of the woman and Vania. In a somewhat surrealist scene, a table with a white tablecloth has been set up in the midst of the rubble, and it is there in the evening where "A" and his companion have dinner. In the background, the rumble of guns and sharp explosions can be heard.
When "A" wakes up, he is naked. He wraps himself in a blanket, walks outside, and sees the woman washing his clothes. She comes back to the house and gives him some of her husband's clothes. The woman goes to the river and demolishes the boat with an axe, obviously in order to hold "A" captive, as Circe also tried to do with Ulysses. She returns to the house, and seeing "A" dressed up in her husband's clothes, pulls him to the floor and makes passionate love to him.
In the next scene, in the darkness, "A" has escaped Circe. He is drifting down the river in a small boat. At dawn, he arrives in Sarajevo. He eventually finds his way to the Film Archives, where he meets a young boy who takes him to an underground market to meet the Archives curator, a Jewish man by the name of Ivo Levy (Erland Josephson). They walk back to the gutted Film Archives building, each carrying containers of water. The siege of Sarajevo has been going on for some time, and the whole town is in ruins, its infrastructure destroyed. People risk their lives daily while fetching water at some of the still functioning water fountains, braving the bullets of Serbian snipers. Running back to the Film Archives, "A" explains to Levy the purpose of his coming to Sarajevo. Levy does have the three films and has tried repeatedly to find the correct chemical formula to develop them, but to no avail. . However, impressed by "A's" courage and determination, Levy says, "You must have great faith, or is it despair?" and agrees to try one more time.
At the Film Archives, "A" goes to sleep and when he awakens, he meets a young woman, Levy's daughter, Noami (<i> Maia Morgenstern in her fourth role), a contemporary Nausicaa;. "A" is obviously struck by Noami's familiar face. By now, we understand that "A" has projected his past lovers in every woman he meets. Noami leaves, and "A," looking around, sees that Levy has already started to get the lab working again. Later that night, Levy wakes up "A" and brings him to his lab where the development of a roll of film is in progress. At last, Levy is successful. "A" and the archivist are overwhelmed with joy and they embrace: after almost 100 years of being captive, an image of Greece from the turn of the century has at last been set free.
The whole place is now flooded with fog. Levy explains that this is a welcome time for the inhabitants of Sarajevo: because of the fog, the Serbian snipers cannot operate, and the population is free to come outside their shelter and enjoy the open air. As "A" and Levy walk past a cemetery, we see some people taking advantage of the lull to bury their dead, Moslem and Orthodox Christians alike. The two friends come across an orchestra playing in a small square. Levy explains that it is made up of young Muslim, Croat, and Serb musicians. There is also a small production of "Romeo and Juliet" going on.
Further on, some couples are dancing to a rock tune. Out of the fog, Naomi appears and invites "A" to dance. The music changes to a 1950s tune, and Naomi has now become the Penelope whom "A" had left behind in Florina, long time ago.
Levy's family joins the trio and they walk together in the fog toward the river, with Levy and "A" straggling behind. Suddenly, there is a noise of a car stopping, doors slamming, and men's voices. Levy tells "A" to stay put and runs in the fog to rejoin the rest of the family. We hear Naomi's cry of, "not the children!" as gun shots are followed by splashes as bodies are dumped into the water. The car leaves and there is total, eerie silence. Throughout, we stare at the fog, only able to guess at the events that have just occurred. As always, Angelopoulos lets us contemplate the meaning of violence, rather than actually showing it. "A" runs to the spot of the massacre where he first finds Levy dead in the snow, and then Naomi. He embraces her, embracing at the same time all the women he has loved and lost. In helpless rage and anger, he releases several heart-wrenching screams. He returns slowly to the Film Archives, passing once more by the still-playing orchestra.
The final scene shows a blank projection screen where a film has just been shown, most likely one of the Manakis' films. Then, a close-up shot of "A," followed by a zoom backward, as he speaks Ulysses' lines to Penelope,
"When I return, it will be with another man's clothes"
"A" has reached his Ithaca, but his odyssey may not be over yet, as he is now looking toward another Ithaca.