Wednesday, August 6, 1997

Ulysses' Gaze

Posted By on Wed, Aug 6, 1997 at 12:00 AM

Greek filmmaker Theo Angelopoulos is practically unknown in this country, although he has, at 61, more than a dozen features to his credit and is considered by some cineastes to be one of the great living directors. That he remains obscure outside of film buff circles is no mystery. Like those of Tarkovsky and Antonioni, to mention two kindred stylists, his films move at a glacial pace, have a distinct cinemagraphic palette and hover between mysticism and social commentary.

Ulysses' Gaze follows the wanderings of A (as in Adam, alpha or anyone), an American who has returned to Greece after a 35-year absence in search of three lost reels of film made by the Manakia brothers, legendary documentarians who recorded everyday life in the Bal-kans at the turn of the century. From this premise, Angelopoulos unfurls a three-hour meditational travelogue as A (Harvey Keitel) goes on an odyssey through Greece and time, ending up in present-day, war-torn Sarajevo.

The signature device in Gaze is a Wellesian trope which Angelopoulos has been perfecting for a long time -- the protracted unedited take, with the camera gliding through the field of focus, sometimes in a logistically impressive manner, sometimes imperceptibly. Eschewing editing for the mobile dolly, the director hands a great burden to the viewer, who has to extract meaning from a graceful but ostensibly nonjudgmental gaze.

And while this can become ponderous, the director's compositions, aided by the brilliant and painterly cinematographer Yorgos Arvanitis, are often ravishing. While Keitel wanders through enigmatic encounters, and as elliptical points about war and culture are made, we are less likely to digest the whispered rhetoric than luxuriate in pictorial beauty.

A major problem is Keitel, whose coiled energy is totally at odds with the film's mood. Trying to be subdued, he sounds like he's merely reciting lines. Only at his journey's painful conclusion does he come alive.

But while good filmmakers are often dull and obvious philosophers, the best of them offer a vision beyond speech. Angelopoulos falls into that latter category, and Gaze, flawed as it is, fascinates with its compelling and inexplicable vistas.

Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for Metro Times. E-mail him at letters@metrotimes.com.

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