July Theme Month

The Soul of the Balkans in Ulysses’ Gaze

Theo Angelopoulos occupies a niche and very specific place in the history of cinema: his presence as a titan and pioneering force in Greece is well-established and celebrated, and yet he is one of those figures whose namesake lurks within the outer-edges of film culture. Angelopoulos is a deep-cut auteur and, in that respect, belongs alongside similar filmmakers such as Czechoslovakia’s František Vláčil, Hungary’s Miklós Jancsó, and India’s Ritwik Ghatak — three highly distinct and singular artists whose artistic contributions to their native nations spark reverence within said geographical bounds, yet fail to achieve the international fame that they perhaps deserve. Extensive knowledge, or even awareness, of any of these filmmakers may be deemed a rite of passage within select cinephile circles. Having said that, although his name rarely appears in conversation, it may be unfair to brand Angelopoulos as a completely obscure filmmaker; his accolades, as far as international award recognition goes, are not nonexistent and are actually quite lengthy. He is no Bergman nor is he even Von Trier in terms of traction, but many of his films have been screened at the world’s most prestigious film festivals. Eternity and a Day, the film that capped off Angelopoulos’ ‘90s output, won the famed Palme d’Or prize at the 51st Cannes Film Festival, while its two predecessors, The Suspended Step of the Stork and Ulysses’ Gaze, were nominated for the same award at past galas. Thus, it should be no surprise that Eternity ranks among Angelopoulos’ most respected and recognizable works. However, what is arguably more interesting than Eternity are its predecessors, particularly Ulysses’ Gaze, a fascinating film in regards to its content but also the critical reception surrounding it.

Ulysses’ Gaze premiered in France at the 48th Cannes Film Festival in May of 1995. It was an exciting time for the average moviegoer with summer in motion and an array of highly-anticipated blockbusters steadily approaching; the summer of Apollo 13, Batman Forever, Crimson Tide, and Die Hard: With a Vengeance. It was also a period of concern and escalation for the Bosnian War, an international and ethnically-charged conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina, stemming from the dissolution of Yugoslavia, involving Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims), Croats, and Serbs. In the span of months where Ulysses’ Gaze would make itself known to the world, the Bosnian Serb army would launch a mortar attack into the core of Sarajevo (the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina) killing 43 people while fighting in the area was gradually expanding and reaching new heights: Bosniak forces launching a full-scale offensive in the city as Croats invaded territory previously held by Serbs. This is relevant because Ulysses’ Gaze is rooted in the history of the Balkans and tied to the Bosnian War, being Angelopoulos’ first film shot outside of Greece, filmed across several Balkan and former Yugoslav nations. In fact, Ulysses, Stork, and Eternity constitute Angelopoulos’ “Trilogy of Borders,” a triad of films tied by their thematic relation to the Bosnian conflict — though Ulysses is certainly the most brazen. The film is structured in a manner akin to Homer’s Odyssey, depicting a protagonist who travels through Albania, Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, and then Bosnia to finally reach the war-scarred Sarajevo at the heart of an evolving conflict — filmed entirely on location with the exception of Sarajevo (the UN forbade filming requests). And yet, Ulysses’ Gaze is not a direct rumination on the conflict — it tells the story of a film director named A (Harvey Keitel) who, after years of working abroad in America, returns to his hometown in Northern Greece near the Albanian border. A’s motive for returning to his native land is soon revealed to be part of a personal mission: he is searching for the long-lost three original film reels of the Manakis brothers, the Greek pioneers of Balkan cinema. These three reels are speculated to be the first ones ever produced in the region, and their images — or rather the “gaze” they have captured — are thought to hold truths unknown to the Balkan people, the key to their ambiguities, complexities, and conflicts in life. To find these lost reels is to find the soul of the region, the elixir for all of its sorrow — a search that would inevitably lead to Sarajevo.

To capture the brunt of Angelopoulos’ ambitions with Ulysses’ Gaze in a brief synopsis is as simple as attempting to chronicle the Bosnian War itself, but the prevailing idea posited by the film is the necessity of cinema as a force for humanism — one that is invaluable for modern society in reconciling our conflicts and differences moving towards the future. In the man’s own words: “The world needs cinema now, more than ever. It may be the last important form of resistance to the deteriorating world in which we live. In dealing with borders, the mixing of languages, and cultures today, I am trying to seek a new humanism, a new way.” His articulation is ostensibly aggressive but this resistance and “new humanism” he refers to is that elixir to counteract, or help understand, the new and unprecedented frontiers brought by modern society and the geopolitical reality of the world. The emphasis in the latter half of the quote on borders and culture is a clear reference to the Bosnian War and its specificities. Angelopoulos’ high reverence for cinema as an ethereal force shines through in Ulysses’ narrative several times, on display when A holds a toast for Murnau, Dreyer, Welles, and Eisenstein, speaking of the filmmakers as if they were ancient Greek philosophers and likening their significance to historical events such as the May of ‘68 and figures like Che Guevara — two iconographic symbols of resistance. Another is towards the end of the film, once A arrives in Sarajevo, he speaks to an underground film archivist suspected of possessing the Manakis reels, who brings A to an abandoned war-torn building to reveal his treasure: film reels for Birth of a Nation, Doctor Mabuse, Chimes at Midnight, Persona, Metropolis, and Ordet, revealed as if they were the Holy Grail itself.

To many viewers, possibly the majority, this proposition of cinema as an eternal elixir for humanity will read as an incredibly pretentious and pompous assertion — tasteless given its thematic gesturing towards the Bosnian War — especially with how overt the messaging is throughout the film’s narrative. Although Ulysses was lauded at its premiere in Cannes, winning the Grand Jury Prize and narrowly losing the Palm d’Or to Emir Kusturica’s Underground, that sentiment of pretentiousness was shared by many critics who blasted the film for its narcissism and self-importance, notably Roger Ebert. (Angelopoulos naming his protagonist A is about as subtle as Andrei Tarkovsky dubbing his protagonist “Andrei” in his deeply reflective Nostalghia). And make no mistake: Ulysses’ Gaze is a film that absolutely reeks of self-importance, self-indulgence, and vanity all-around. That said, there is something irresistibly admirable and compelling about a vision as titanic and uncompromising as what Angelopoulos set out to accomplish here. This is a film that tracks over several countries with a scope and scale that is breathtaking to witness. There is a pure spectacle in how Angelopoulos shoots the gorgeous landscape of the Balkans, how hypnotizing and dreamlike the experience is, not to mention the gloomy but seamless descent into murkiness as A approaches the war-torn areas. One of the most iconic and entrancing sequences of the film is one where A aboards a barge laden, fit with a crumbled Ozymandias-esque statue of Vladimir Lenin, and flows through the riverbank while groups of people by the riverbank stand in awe as the camera slowly circles around Lenin’s broken head as unearthly music plays — as if you were gazing into the soul of a man whose ideology reigned over the region for decades.

Ulysses’ Gaze is a film that speaks to a very specific crowd of filmgoers and, honestly, while its poeticism and philosophical muses may not be for everyone, its indulgence is not that much more severe than the late-period works of similar filmmakers like Andrei Tarkovsky (which is a statement that may be tantamount to sacrilege). The film is incredibly unique and it truly is a sight to behold. Pretentiousness itself is not a term that I put much value in either way, but to rebuke the claims that Angelopoulos’ vision is one of narcissism and pomposity, I suggest audiences view the film more abstractly, the Manakis reels being little more than a symbolic motif. The whole film, and Angelopoulos’ urgency for cinema today, can be likened to George Santayana’s famous aphorism: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” and also, since Angelopoulos predicates his film on the Bosnian War, “Only the dead have seen the end of war.” Both of these quotes perfectly capture the essence of Ulysses’ Gaze, the latter tying into the tragic and climactic finale of the film in Sarajevo that eerily reflects the real-world events that would occur in the city following the premiere of the film. Regarding the former, Angelopoulos touches on the history of the Balkan region throughout the film through symbolic gestures and visual motifs (i.e. the Lenin statue) — A’s search for the Manakis reels is effectively a search for the past, an attempt to grasp forgotten knowledge that would theoretically prevent meaningless and gruesome conflicts that have occurred before in the past. A is attempting to halt the inevitability of the future, presented as further casualties in Sarajevo, by latching on to the past — what people seemingly cannot remember. The importance of film is found here: how do we capture and preserve our history? As centuries pass, foundations crumble, and icons of new fade into rubble — all we will have left is film, our only gaze into the past.

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