Friday, March 25, 2011

The Best Films I've Never Seen Before: The Travelling Players (1975)

The Traveling Players (1975) ****
Directed by: Theodoros Angelopoulos.
Written by: Theodoros Angelopoulos.
Starring: Eva Kotamanidou (Elektra), Aliki Georgouli (Clytemnestra), Vangelis Kazan (Aegisthus), Stratos Pahis (Agamemnon), Maria Vassiliou (Chrysothemis), Petros Zarkadis (Orests), Kiriakos Katrivanos (Pyladis), Giannis Fyrios (Accordionisth), Nina Papazaphiropoulou (Old Woman), Alekos Boubis (Old Man), Grigoris Evangelatos (Poet).

I have to admit that I did not fully understand Theodoros Angelopoulos’ The Travelling Players (1975) – his breakthrough film as a director and widely regarded as being his best. This is probably because I don’t know all that much about Greek history – this movie is packed with it, but assumes that you know something about it, so if you’re like me, prepare to be confused and because I had never seen one of the directors films before. I know he has won a Palme D’Or, so I really should have seen something by him before now, but even the glowing reviews of his work use phrases like “deliberately paced”, which means slow. And his films are all so long – The Travelling Players clocks in just under 4 hours, that to be honest, they kind of scared me away from his work. But while I admit that The Travelling Players is “deliberately paced”, somewhat confusing for me as a Greek history neophyte, and dense with mythological allusions I didn’t fully understand (since, I didn’t know the myth), I have to admit something else about The Travelling Players – for every one of its 230 minutes, I was enthralled by the movie. This is the type of history spanning, multi-generational epic that no one makes anyone – and few every did do very well. You want a comparison – it is to Greece what Bertolucci’s 1900 was to Italy – but far less flawed. I was confused by much of The Traveling Players and yet I loved every single second of it.

We know from the outset what type of film this is going to be. The opening scene sees the travelling players themselves – a theater trope who although the movie spans the years from 1939-1952, will only ever perform one play – Golfo, the Shepperdess – as the walk in silence down the street. They do not seem like a happy bunch, and indeed they are not. At this point, 1952, they have been through so much that we will not understand until the end of the movie, that they are miserable. They don’t even much care about the bus rumbling down the street, throwing out pamphlets urging them to vote for Alexandros Papagos in the upcoming election. Political upheaval has been a constant in Greece for decades, and to these weary travelers, they no longer much care.

The movie will flash back and forth in time to all the years between 1939 and 1952. There is a linear story here, but you have to work to find it since Angelopoulos flashes around in time at his whim. During the course of the film Greece will be under the control of a pro-monarchy dictatorship, Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, experience a Civil War between Communists and Anti-Communists, which the Communists will eventually lose, leading to the election of Papagos, an Authortative leader with American backing. Had he wanted to Angelopoulos could have easily continued through history, and political upheaval seems to be a way of life in Greece. Yet, I think one of the points that Angelopoulos is making, and why he flashes around so much in time, is because it really doesn’t seem to matter that is in charge – every regime is corrupt and violent and brutal to the people. We will see many murders during the course of the movie, and a particularly nasty rape scene, but the end result of each new regime is the same – violence and death.

So that is one layer of the film – charting the political history of Greece for more than a decade by focusing on their effect on the traveling players. The other harkens back to Greek mythology. I had a feeling I was watching something based on Greek mythology as I was watching the film – it does have that sort of epic swept and feel to it. It was only after I saw the film and I looked it up did I find out what the specific source is – Aeschylus The Oresteia, a trilogy of plays concerning the curse on the House of Atreus – reading over the synopsis of those plays, it is easy to identify the players in this movie (at least the first two parts). Against the political backdrop established by Angelopoulos, a smaller scale tragedy plays out as the leader of the trope Agamemnon (Stratos Pachis) is cheated on by his wife Clytemnestra (Aliki Georgouli) with the cowardly Aegisthus (Vangelis Kazan). Aegisthus will eventually accuse Agamemnon of being a traitor, which will lead to his execuition. Agamemnon’s daughter Elektra (Eva Kotamanidou) and son Orestes (Petros Zarkadis) will bid their time and plot their revenge on their mother and the cowardly man who betrayed their father, while a third daughter Chrysothemis, will become selfish, caring little about her family, including her own son. Just to make matters a little more confusing, Angelopoulos never names any of his characters with the exception of Orestes (which I think he did by necessity, as he has to flee the players, and they need to refer to him often in conversation).

I realize now that I have made The Travelling Players seem like a long, slow, confusing, depressing, dense, pretentious film – and to a certain extent all of those things are true. And yet for me, it was a completely involving experience – I was swept up in the upheaval of the film, the personal tragedy set against the political one. Angelopoulos favors long, unbroken shots (a personal favorite of mine), and there is no detail too small for him to obsess over. It has the epic scope and feel that so few movies these days even attempt, and for a then young filmmaker to even attempt this took guts – and to pull it off took a certain brilliance. Angelopoulos seems like an interesting man with a large ego. When his film, Ulysess’ Gaze won the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes in 1995 (which is essentially second place) he got up on stage and said “If this is what you have to give me, I have nothing to say” and stormed off. Showing no remorse, when his film Eternity and a Day won the Palme in 1998 he got up on stage and said “If you had given me that other prize, and would have given the same speech”. So the man clearly has a huge ego. And yet, I think to make a film like The Travelling Players, you pretty much have to have a huge ego – if you didn’t, you wouldn’t attempt to make the film in the first place. Having now seen a film by Angelopoulos, I want to see more. The Travelling Players is a masterwork.

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