If adversity is the crucible of great art, then Greece is as good a place as any to bring us one of the cinema’s great masters. It’s checkered past of wartime destruction and prevailing poverty during the 20th century serves as the backbone for Theo Angelopoulos’ unique cinematic vision and, perhaps most admirably, one of his most endearing traits is the sense of humour with which the man handles the tumultuous state of affairs plaguing motherland. His style is as sophisticated as it is unbelievably light and simple on-screen, which speaks of his uncanny understanding for the nuance achievable in the cinematic medium- and though this method buckles under the weight of internal politics in some of his potential great works, the cinema of Theo Angelopoulos remains compelling from his debut in 1970 right up to an untimely swansong with 2008’s the Dust of Time. Here’s why.
Angelopoulos allows his work to buckle and breathe. He actively engages with his audience’s attention and through this understanding sews a fascinating structure to his pieces that goes against every convention in the book. Instead of constantly pursuing important plot points to keep forward momentum at an intensive surge, Angelopoulos moves almost in a swell, flowing patiently and precisely placing vital moments so that they are followed with often many minutes of calm. He doesn’t wait idly and waste our time, however, using these moments to develop richly absorbing worlds characterised both visually by his long time collaborating cinematographers and through the people he populates them with.
In The Travelling Players, an early scene sees the eponymous group of performers settle down in a local café. The camera drifts towards the door to follow one of their runaway children, quickly caught outside as a troupe of soldiers enters the town square. They sing a marching tune which quietly inspired political inspiration in several members of the group, who quarrel over their beliefs. It’s an impeccably directed sequence that, whilst not directly moving the people along, succinctly and cinematically establishes the divisions in the group that will take root with far more venom in said crucial sequences.
It is this preference for non-diegetic sound, exclusively featuring live music for his first four features and sparing use of unnatural noise for the next few, that make his landscapes so vivid and full of life. They react culturally to the camera entering their space and always provide a conflict be it political, social or marked by the dilapidating cities of a poverty-stricken Greece. Angelopoulos movies are filled with adversity, strife and woe fit to match works like 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days in their ominous depiction of a struggling Balkan nation- and yet somehow they are also gifted with a lightness and humour that allows them to glide off the screen…