Of the few great directors who are still with us*, Theo Angelopoulos, born in Athens in 1936, is probably the least known. The reasons are obvious. He is a film-maker who refuses compromise. The slow pace and austere style of his work are utterly against current trends, and the content is invariably as formidably intellectual as it is emotional and poetic. He is, to put it bluntly, not everybody’s idea of a good night out. At his best, however, he is unquestionably a master. And only the fact that he so obviously knows it renders that fact unsympathetic.
Now finally invested with the Palme d’Or at Cannes – a prize he has coveted for years, even to the extent of making a churlish speech when he was offered the runner’s-up award – Angelopoulos seems content to allow history to judge his work. It will certainly judge The Travelling Players (O Thiassos) a classic.
It was filmed in Greece in 1974, at no small risk, under the hard-line rule of the Greek colonels’ junta. Why the military police who watched its progress allowed it to be completed is a mystery, since the film clearly examines the turbulent history of its country of origin from a radical Brechtian point of view. Perhaps the colonels’ men thought that this story of a troupe of itinerant actors touring Golfo the Shepherdess, a pastoral folk drama set to music and song, was harmless enough. But it wasn’t, since the period in which it is set (1939 to 1952) warmed the seeds of their masters’ military coup.
Almost four hours long, The Travelling Players has its actors first watch and then get caught up in the political events of the period, so that even the play changes its emphasis. As they progress through the often rainy and wintry provincial Greece in which Angelopoulos usually prefers to shoot, the sequences become longer and longer and the pace seldom changes. The whole film is accomplished in around 80 shots.
But despite that, and even though no one but a Greek can understand all the political, historical and mythic allusions, it is a fascinating progress, enlivened by Yorgos Arvanitis’s often luminous photography, Loukianos Kilaidonis’s throbbing music, including songs and dances adapted from folk sources, and performances that seem utterly truthful.
How does Angelopoulos achieve this magic? It is partly the utter conviction with which he steers his work towards an inner as well as an outward relevance. But take a look, if you want to see how he manages individual sequences, at the closing passage of this film, when one of the actors is executed for sedition and his fellow performers raise their hands above their heads to applaud his life at the graveside. Nothing could be done more simply – though in most successful simplicity there is a great deal of artfulness. But the sequence, perhaps because of all that has gone before, is far more moving than the myriad funeral scenes in movies manage to be. It has a grace that is almost totally absent from most of today’s cinema.
In many ways Angelopoulos has been lucky. As the outstanding Greek director, he has had his every whim granted over the last half of his career by the cultural wing of the country’s government. And he is clearly a difficult man to satisfy. But he has forged a unique if often pessimistic style through which to examine as minutely as he can his own country and countrymen. If you were to see all his dozen or so films, you would have not only a much greater appreciation of Greek and Balkan conflicts, but a larger view of the inner turmoil of individuals whose lives have been altered by them.
* Died: January 24, 2012, Piraeus, Greece