This is the first film of Theo Angelopoulos' trilogy. The story starts in 1919 with some greek refugees from Odessa arriving somewhere near Thessaloniki. Among these people are two small kids, Alexis and Eleni. Eleni is an orphan and she is also taken care by Alexis' family. The refugees build a small village somewhere near a river and we watch as the kids grow up and fall in love. But difficult times of dictatorship and war are coming...
- The film opens with a plan -sequence reminiscent of the one at the beginning of The Travelling Players. A large group of people carrying suitcases and trunks walks from a sea shore to a foreground river bank. At the head of the group walks its leader and spokesman, Spyros (Vassilis Kolovos) and his wife, Danae (Thalia Argirioua). Between them are their five-year-old son and three-year-old adopted daughter. Spyros, answering the voice-over, explains to an unseen character that they are Greek refugees who have escaped from the Bolshevik-overrun Odessa. After being quarantined in Thessaloniki, the refugees have been authorized to settle in the region, and been given this piece of land. This shot is followed by the opening credits, displayed on a grainy background of old photographs.
Another long take follows which shows on the same spot, some twelve to fourteen years later, a village erected by these immigrants that they named "New Odessa." On the river, a small rowboat docks and unloads a woman and a teenage girl. The young girl is Spyros' now grownup adopted daughter, Eleni (Alexandra Aidini), accompanied by her mother. Eleni has just given birth to twin boys in secret, away from her home, and has given them up for adoption. She is escorted to Spyros' house, the largest in the village. The twins' father is none other than her step-brother, Alexis, the boy who walked next to Eleni in the prologue shot.
In the next scene, horseback riders are combing the area, searching for Eleni. She had just married Spyros, but at the close of the church ceremony, she ran away with Alexis. The couple escapes to Thessaloniki by hailing a passing truck that carries the group of musicians who were returning from the wedding. The group is lead by Nikos (Giorgos Armenis), the violinist, who from then on will be a father figure for Alexis, and take the runaway couple under his protection. In Thessaloniki, Nikos takes Eleni and Alexis to a large theater that has been converted into a refugee shelter, with each family living in curtained boxes and tented stalls. A vengeful Spyros appears in the theater and the fugitives have to escape once more to another shelter.
In the morning, Alexis and Eleni go to a musicians' hangout and meet a group of musicians who serenade them. Nikos recognizes the great talent of Alexis as an accordionist and will do his best to promote him. Nikos forms a loose group of musicians and tries to get gigs for them, but without much success. We have just passed the great depression, and we are approaching the Popular Front of 1936. Alexis' accordionist talents get him an audition with Markos, a famous and enterprising musician who is planning to put together a band and go to the United States to play for the Greek immigrant community. Markos, also impressed by Alexis' talent, promises him that he will be part of his group going to the "promised land," but this trip will not happen in the immediate future.
Eleni's twins, Yannis and Yorgis, now about twelve years old, are reunited with her. It is 1936, and the musicians have aligned themselves with the Popular Front. In one scene, they are playing in an old beer hall for Union members who have been hunted down by the police. At the dance, a tense scene takes place when Spyros re-appears. He dances with his wife, Eleni, and later collapses of a heart attack. His son Alexis says, "I killed him." What follows is one of those long takes, a beautiful plan-sequence, typical of Angelopoulos' lyrical creations: Spyros' funeral on the water.
Following his father's funeral, Alexis returns to his father's house in New Odessa with Eleni and his two children. There, he finds his father's sheep, all slaughtered by the villagers, hanging from a tree by the house. As the family moves into the house, a barrage of stones breaks the windows, thrown by the unforgiving villagers. During the night, the village is flooded by the rising waters of the nearby lake, and has to be abandoned by its inhabitants. At dawn, in another striking plan-sequence, people are rowing their boats among the partly-submerged houses, toward higher ground. They are carrying their meager possessions to safety. By contrast, Alexis and his family huddle together without any belongings. There are now completely destitute. Through the night, the villagers, carrying icons, perform an exorcism dance around a bonfire. In the morning they row their boats while carrying black flags through their flooded village, past a small islet where a school once stood. The teacher is there, among the empty benches, with Yannis and Yorgis.
The Popular Front has definitely been vanquished. Many of its members are being rounded up, tortured, lined up against walls to be executed by the Falangists. In a lyrical scene, there is a field of white sheets (but where are the pillowcases?) hanging to dry in the wind. Scattered among them, musicians are playing their various instruments. The musicians eventually gather by the seashore. Shots ring out, and they disperse. Alexis and Eleni take refuge in the upstairs of a nearby house. From the window they observe their friend Nikos, mortally wounded, stumbling through the field of sheets. A crowd, gathered at the foot of the habitations, looks on, as Nikos, waving goodbye, collapses on the ground.
By the rainy, gray morning, a small crowd of well-wishers has assembled on a quay to send Markos and his group off to America. Alexis is to join them on the long-dreamed voyage. A large ocean liner is waiting some distance away to take them to the "promised land." Eleni and the children are also present to see him off. She has knitted him a red sweater, which she did not have time to finish. Alexis grabs a thread from it and undoes the knitting as he boards the small boat that takes him to the ocean liner. Eventually, the thread breaks off.
A letter from Alexis, written on March 5, 1937 from Ellis Island, reaches Eleni. It describes Alexis' disappointment in the "promised land." Soon after, as Eleni is writing back to her husband, there are knocks on the door. She is arrested by the Fascists and taken into the night to a prison, most likely because of her association with the Leftist musicians. She is liberated as WWII commences with the Italian invasion of Greece, followed by the Nazi occupation. Eleni returns to her house in Thessaloniki only to discover that it has burned down, along with the whole neighborhood. She gets a letter from Alexis dated October 30, 1940, telling her that he has joined the US Army in order to become a citizen, which will allow him to bring Eleni and the children to America.
Soon after the end of WWII, the Greek civil war begins. Eleni has again been thrown in jail for harboring a wounded partisan. We see her in 1949, leaving the jail, as the warden gives her a letter from Alexis, written four years earlier, from Okinawa, the last battle in the Pacific. The letter had been found next to "the body of a dead soldier," later identified as Alexis. Eleni is being liberated so that she can go and claim the body of her dead son, Yannis, who had joined the Government's side against the Communist partisans. Eleni collapses in the field where Yannis' body is laying, and she is taken in by some old women of her old village who are now remorseful about the way they treated Eleni's family. One of these women (Toula Stathopoulos) tells her about the death of Eleni's other son, Yorgis. She takes Eleni to a spot where she witnessed the two brothers, fighting for opposing sides, briefly reunited as Yannis brought the erroneous news of the death of their mother to his brother. The scene of the meeting between the two brothers is not recounted by the old lady, but through a shift in time, we actually the two brothers' brief, poignant meeting. The old lady tells Eleni that Yorgis's body is still where he fell in Spyros' old house, now practically swallowed up by the waters, in the middle of the lake. Eleni rows a boat to the house, and collapses on her son's body. She rises from his body, releasing several heart-wrenching screams of grief. She is now totally alone in the world.