What a master Angelopoulos is. When I despair about Greece, I turn to his work and find my despair validated. But I also find hope. He tears your heart to pieces and then he invites you to reflect.
His most recent (and, alas, what turned to be his last) film, The Dust of Time, is a flawed masterpiece. Flawed to be sure, but a masterpiece all the same. To start with, the English language sits very uneasily with Angelopoulos aesthetic, especially when English is spoken by various non-native speakers. Equally uneasy seem to be three of the four stars of the film, Irene Jacob, Willem Dafoe and especially Michel Piccoli. All three are badly miscast and truly out of their depth, something underlined by the shattering performance of the fourth star, Bruno Ganz. In spite of this, by the end of the film I found myself totally drained but also strangely energised – so much so, that I felt I should sit down and write these lines while the film is still fresh in my mind. What is so great about Angelopoulos? Throughout his films, Angelopoulos has demonstrated an uncanny ability to create a ‘new’ Greece, a Greece entirely unlike that of conventional ‘art’, literature and tourism brochures. It is a country that is always in agony, a country whose bleak and misty aesthetic matches the sorrows, the shame and the despair of his characters, a country constantly at war with its present and its past, a country at war with itself – but a country all the same.
This latest film is shot entirely outside Greece (Germany, Kazakhstan, Canada and elsewhere) but Angelopoulos continues to come up with images that do not merely bewitch the eye but prompt the mind to fill the spaces, the gaps. Boundaries are everywhere in Angelopoulos’s films, frontiers, rivers, walls, as well as vast emotional and psychological distances between his characters. And yet – his characters, even when played badly, are characters with histories; they are not just multi-dimensional, in desperate conflict with themselves and the world around them, but they display passion and an uncanny sensibility. It is truly brilliant to see a film in which old people are portrayed not as caricatures, objects of old age, but as genuine subjects with agency, subjects that carry a history wherever they go. It is this history that constantly tears them apart but also brings them together. And they have passions too! Not mere ‘emotions’, but vibrant, burning and, as in all tragedy, destructive passions.
Seeing his films made me think how quickly the Greeks as a nation have forgotten how to suffer and hence how to endure. Angelopoulos has much to teach us in advance of the great darkness ahead.