For an introduction to Theo Angelopoulos and his work, please see my review of Volume 1 of the Collection. Volume 2 contains his next five feature films.
Alexander the Great (O Megalexandros) (released 1980, running time 199:35, certificate 12)
It sounds astonishing now, but there was a time when a UK free-to-air television channel devoted four hours of its schedule (including commercial breaks) to a (mostly) Greek-language, English-subtitled film. But they did: Channel 4 showed Angelopoulos' Alexander the Great on Wednesday 24 September 1984, starting at 9pm. Film fans old enough to remember will have many tales of what Channel 4 used to show in the 1980s. (Another one of mine is that this was the same channel that, a year later, showed all nine hours of Masaki Kobayashi's The Human Condition over three consecutive nights starting at 9pm – not only subtitled but black and white and fully letterboxed into Scope as well.) What seems remarkable about this scheduling of Alexander the Great was that the film had not had a prior cinema release in the UK, and Angelopoulos was known only for his one previous film that had, namely The Travelling Players (see Volume 1). It couldn't be shown nowadays: Channel 4 is very much a different channel, and you'd suspect that a new Angelopoulos film would probably show very late at night and probably on Film 4 rather than the main channel. I wonder how many people watched that 1984 broadcast (I admit I didn't), and how many stayed the course and what they made of it?
That last question is very pertinent as this film, the last of the Trilogy of History, is not the most accessible of Angelopoulos' films, and not just due to its length, second only to The Travelling Players in the director's filmography. The title would lead you to suspect a historical epic about the Macedonian leader from the fourth century BC. Nor is it about the legendary fifteenth-Century Greek liberator against Turkish rule, though the film alludes to him The film is inspired by a true story from 1870, here updated to the turn of the twentieth century: a group of English aristocrats is kidnapped by a mysterious bandit calling himself Alexander the Great (Omero Antonutti). He takes them to his mountain village which is run as a commune. He is a leader who may be a hero to his subjects but is a (largely silent) tyrant who uses the mythic overtones of his name to assert his power. The film is an allegory of how (specifically socialist) ideals become corrupted into totalitarianism.
Alexander the Great shows Angelopoulos working in epic mode, not just in length but in size of production, something he would not really return to until Ulysses' Gaze. Those lengthy sequence shots – and you know that those locations and the many extras are all real – and the general avoidance of close-ups mean that smaller screens in that TV showing may not have got the best out of this film, but short of the unlikely event of catching a 35mm showing, this DVD will do as well as anything. An Italian co-production, it features the director's first non-Greek leading actor, Omero Antonutti, then and now best known as the bullying patriarch in the Taviani Brothers' Padre Padrone. He's cast mostly for his presence, burly and bald-headed, as he has very few lines to read.
Voyage to Cythera (Taxidi sta Kithhira) (1984, 133:47, 15)
With Voyage to Cythera, Angelopoulos began a new thematic trilogy, the Trilogy of Silence. While many of his concerns and methods remained, there is a noticeable shift in subject matter and setting, from the historical/timeless locales of his earlier films to contemporary times, which means that phones and fast-food stands make appearances, and his sequence shots can now make use of trains and cars – or even helicopters as in the opening shot of The Suspended Step of the Stork. As I said in my review of The Beekeeper, given the tone of the films – there's no doubt that Angelopoulos sees cinema as primarily a means of artistic expression – to hear pop music playing on a jukebox could be almost unseemly, though that's no doubt a cheap shot. The political themes remain, with a recurring motif of borders reflecting changes in contemporary Europe. On the whole, Angelopoulos is moving away from epic mode to more personal and individual stories, and this is reflected in a reduction in running time, from two and a quarter hours plus to generally between two and two and a quarter.
Cythera is the mythical island of dreams where one can dedicate oneself to the pursuit of happiness. In this film, Angelopoulos retells the Odyssey from the viewpoint of the title character's sion. The Telemachus figure here is a middle-aged filmmaker. He takes an interest in an old man, exiled in the Soviet Union for over thirty years and now stateless. However, he is unable to find a home in present-day Greece, which leads to a memorable final scene of his being literally adrift.
Angelopoulos has identified two key collaborators who have worked with him for most of his films. One is the DP Giorgos Arvanatis. The second is Eleni Karaindrou, who has worked with him as score composer from this film onwards. The change from the rather plain and minimal use of music in the earlier films to the emotive scores that she provides, is another dividing line in Angelopoulos' films.
The Beekeeper (O Melissokomos) (1986, 117:12, 18)
The Beekeeper was previously given a separate DVD release in 2010 and I reviewed it here. What follows is a shortened version of that review. This was the second Angelopoulos film to have a UK cinema release, and from this point on every one except The Suspended Step of the Stork and The Dust of Time have been shown in British arthouses.
Spyros (Marcello Mastroianni), a disenchanted middle-aged schoolteacher, leaves his job and travels across Greece, his cherished beehives with him, seeking springtime flowers for his bees. On the way, he encounters a young female hitchhiker (Nadia Mourouzi), for whom he develops an overwhelming obsession. It's not hard to spot the symbolism of the bees as representing Spyros's passion, which he keeps contained. (His relationship with his wife seems to have become quite desiccated.) When a strong wind blows, he hurriedly places rocks on the lids to prevent the hives blowing open. An opening voiceover describes the dance of male bees to attract a queen, and much of what follows plays out such a dance.
The Beekeeper is a chamber work compared to other Angelopoulos films. It benefits greatly from Marcello Mastroianni's presence – his appearance prefiguring other international actors' work in the director's films, such as Bruno Ganz and also Harvey Keitel in Ulysses' Gaze. Mastroianni entered a purple patch in the last decade of his life, winning a Cannes Prize and an Oscar nomination for the following year's Dark Eyes, and you can see an example in The Beekeeper. We're shown but not told Spyros's malaise and his obsessive lust for the unnamed hitchhiker: it's all there in Mastroianni's body language, especially remarkable in that there are few close shots in this film. On the other hand, the hitchhiker comes uneasily close to a middle-aged-male fantasy figure, a free spirit given to fucking a casual pick-up in the bed next to Spyros and not running a mile when he (who must be around three times her age) finally comes on to her. It's also unfortunate that female sexuality is seen as a destructive force.
Landscape in the Mist (Topio stin Omichi) (1988, 119:32, 15)
Teenaged Voula (Tania Palaialoglou) and her much younger brother Alexandros (Michalis Zeke) are searching for their vanished father. Every night they go to a railway station and watch the departure of the train to Germany. One night they take it.
Landscape in the Mist is a road movie. Faced by dangers ncluding poverty, exploitation and rape (discreetly portrayed), they travel by train, hitchhike in vans and lorries as they travel through depopulated Greece to a Germany which is as much myth as reality. Some of the sights on the way are quite surreal, such as a giant stone hand being lifted out of the water. Angelopoulos refers back to his earlier work by having the two children meet the Travelling Players, still without a stage to act on. Landscape in the Mist is a smaller-scale work but one that lingers in the mind afterwards, and Arvanatis' photography is frequently stunning.
The Suspended Step of the Stork (To Meteoro Vima tou Pelargou) (1991, 136:19, 12)
Landscape in the Mist was released just before the downfall of the Communist regimes of Eastern Europe. The Suspended Step of the Stork was made shortly afterwards. Along with Ulysses' Gaze and Eternity and a Day, both to be included in Volume 3 of the Collection, it makes up Angelopoulos's Trilogy of Borders, The title is explained early on: the boundary between Greece and Albania is a line drawn across a bridge, and if you raise your foot over the line you cannot put it down again, for fear of arrest or worse.
Alexandre (Gregory Karr), a journalist, is working at a border town which is called “the waiting room” by its inhabitants as it houses a large number of refugees. Indeed many of those inhabitants are themselves refugees who had entered the country illegally. One of them is an old man (Marcello Mastroianni). Alexandre thinks that he is a Greek politician who disappeared many years ago. His identity is not resolved: the story allows Angelopoulos ti meditate on the divisions between people and countries, emblematised in a surreal scene of a wedding ceremony taking place on both banks of the river that marks the national boundary.
The Theo Angelopoulos Collection Volume 2 comprises five dual-layered discs encoded for all regions, one for each film. The 18 certificate is due to The Beekeeper. Landscape in the Mist was given a 15 certificate for home viewing on its VHS release, while the other three films' certificates have not been confirmed by the BBFC website at the time of writing. [Update: BBFC certificates have since been confirmed and are listed against each film.]
The Beekeeper was the only one of the five not supplied as a checkdisc for this review, so I do not know if it is the 2010 DVD repackaged, though that is more likely than it being reauthored for this boxset. (The other four films, and the four in Volume 1, have a uniform menu design.)
The first four films are in a ratio of 1.33:1. That certainly seems correct, though I will note that the only one of these five that I saw in the cinema (Landscape in the Mist) was shown in 1.66:1 when I saw it. With The Suspended Step of the Stork Angelopoulos has embraced the wider screen: this DVD transfer is in a ratio of 1.78:1 and is anamorphically enhanced. The colours of Alexander the Great seem a little duller than those of the other films, and shows signs of fading – some scenes have a pinkish hue that I doubt is intended. There's some print damage on all of the films, mostly speckles particularly near to where the reel changes would be in 35mm prints. But on the whole these look quite acceptable and often more than that. If The Beekeeper has not been reauthored, then these comments from my original review apply: “This transfer does seem as if it's a few years old, as it doesn't look like the HD-derived one that would be used nowadays: there's some noise and the image is softer than it perhaps should be, though Angelopoulos's and Arvanatis's preference for muted colours and natural light may have something to do with that. It's certainly acceptable, just not top-notch.”
The soundtrack is in mono for all five films and is quite clear and well balanced. English subtitles are optionally available, though short exchanges in English in Alexander the Great and The Suspended Step of the Stork go unsubtitled. If The Beekeeper is the previous DVD repackaged, there will be a French-dubbed track included on its disc as well as the mostly-Greek-with-some-French original.
There are no extras on any of the discs that I received, though again The Beekeeper may be an exception. The original disc contained a French trailer for the film, plus trailers for four other Artificial Eye releases.