Theo Angelopoulos in Memoriam

Of Time and Memory

Theo Angelopoulos (17 April 1935 – 24 January 2012)

Theo Angelopoulos was one of the great visionaries of contemporary cinema and arguably Greece’s finest filmmaker. His death, whilst filming his latest feature, has robbed the medium of a true artist.

Featuring long, beautifully composed tracking shots, Angelopoulos’ films are a study in time, memory and the shifting landscapes upon which people live out their lives. They witness social upheaval, wars and the displacement of entire nations. However, within each work, regardless of its scale, can be found intimate and moving dramas.

Originally a law student, Angelopoulos studied cinema under Jean Rouch before returning from Paris to Greece and becoming a film critic. In 1965, after the military shut down the paper he worked for, Angelopoulos moved into filmmaking, first with an uncompleted project about a pop group, then the short Broadcast (1968).

The director’s feature debut, Reconstruction (1970), an existential investigative thriller, was well received by international critics and seen as a marked departure for Greek cinema. He followed it with an ambitious trilogy that traced his country’s history during the 20th century. 1972’s Days of ‘36’ unfolds just prior to the Metaxas dictatorship. The Travelling Players (1975), which remains one of Angelopoulos’ most beloved works, is a powerful blend of Imagistic tableaux, extended monologues and song cycles, focusing on a group of itinerant actors and employing their collective experience to detail the country’s past, from the late 1930s through to the turmoil of the 1952 elections. The trilogy ended with The Hunters (1975), which looks at the culpability of individuals during the far right’s control of power in Greece, between 1949 and 1977.

Angelopoulos continued to analyse notions of power in Alexander the Great (1980). However, in 1984, he changed tack, teaming up for the first time with screenwriter and poet Tonino Guerra, who had previously worked with Fellini, Antonioni and Tarkovsky. Voyage to Cythera, which was awarded the Critics’ Prize at Cannes, follows a filmmaker journeying though his father’s past, in a search for his own identity. The film marked a shift from the collective to the individual, but remains a piercing critique of the director’s own country.

Both The Beekeeper (1986) and The Landscape in the Mist (1988) focus on individuals separated from their family, both real and imaginary. The peripatetic characters at the heart of these narratives, dislocated from the world they may once have belonged to, pass through a society in which they appear to hold no place. The Suspended Step of the Stork (1991) expands this canvas to an entire people – the refugees of economic, political and religious persecution. It is taken further in the remarkable Ulysses’ Gaze (1996), the second of Angelopoulos’ films to focus on a fictional filmmaker (followed in 2008 with The Dust of Time, also featuring a character called ‘A’, but with Willem Defoe replacing Harvey Keitel), which paints a compelling and heart-rendering portrait of the Balkan conflict, as well as a search for the roots of that region’s early cinema. Shot whilst the city of Sarajevo was still under siege from sniper fire, it is one of the boldest statements on the war.

In 1998, Angelopoulos was awarded the Palme d’Or for Eternity and a Day. The film is very much a summation of his style and concerns, dealing with the emotional journey of one man through the past and present, and against a backdrop of social disorder. The Weeping Meadow (2004) was envisioned as the first in a projected trilogy, now to remain incomplete.

Though his death has come as a shock to many, Theo Angelopoulos leaves behind a body of work that is as exacting, challenging and visually ravishing as any produced by the great European directors of the last 50 years. As The Village Voice’s Michael Atkinson said of his work: “Time grows gargantuan, landscapes change, masses of people engage in epochal social phenomena. It’s not a strategy dilettantes should entertain; Angelopoulos, one of Europe’s most rigorous film artists, stands as the master of monumentalism.”

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