Earlier this year, the world of international cinema lost one of its giants, a filmmaker who truly ranked among the greatest of those working today. While walking near the set of his latest film, The Other Sea, the Greek director Theodoros Angelopoulos was struck by a motorcycle, driven by an off-duty police officer, and died later at a hospital. A few months later, apparently by sheer coincidence, Artificial Eye would release the third and last collection of his works on DVD. Included in this set is Ulysses' Gaze (1995), one of Angelopoulos' best and most acclaimed films.
Starring Harvey Keitel, just a year after his turn in the American masterpiece Pulp Fiction and two years after the controversial indie double whammy of Bad Lieutenant and Reservoir Dogs, Ulysses' Gaze would win multiple awards the world over, including the Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival (the film would not take the Palme d'Or, the festival's highest honor, prompting Angelopoulos to shockingly declare, "If this is what you have to give me, I have nothing to say.").
In the film, Keitel's character, A (yes, that's how he is known), is a filmmaker himself, returning to his Greek homeland after decades of absence to attend the screening of one of his more divisive films. Following the contentious presentation, he heads out on what is essentially a duel journey; he at once begins a voyage of memory and revisitations, while more explicitly also attempting to locate the earliest films made by the Manakis brothers, pioneering directors of the region during the birth of cinema. It' a personal and professional conquest reminiscent of Federico Fellini's 8 1/2 or Woody Allen's Stardust Memories.
As A travels, seemingly back and forth through time, through his memories and perhaps even those of others', he encounters family members who have since passed, and various lovers, new, old, all played by Maia Morgenstern. To be sure, the film has its ambiguous qualities, and as A traverses through various Southeastern Europe locales, the film can tend to present more questions than answers. In his (one star!) review of the film, Roger Ebert also raises some questions, among those about the casting of Keitel. No doubt, he was an interesting choice, but in a film like this, finding an actor who could perhaps best play a character who is so vague to begin with seems of a secondary concern. (Ebert does at least credit the film for some of its remarkable images, particularly the enormous, dismantled statue of Lenin as it's loaded onto a barge, recalling the huge stone hand hovering in the air in Landscape in the Mist (1988)).
Most of Angelopoulos' work is impressive — at the very least, his movies are markedly distinct in style and tone — but Ulysses' Gaze is situated roughly between two of his most remarkable films, Landscape in the Mist and Eternity and a Day (1998). Not the most prolific director, his next film, also one that is particularly first-rate, was The Weeping Meadow, in 2004. Regardless of how many years passed between his films though, Angelopoulos, like most great filmmakers, maintained a notable aesthetic consistency in his output. There was almost always a slow, meditative pace to his films, emphasized by his meandering, single-take camera movements, often gliding across barren landscapes that suggest a time and place out of step with the modern kinetic world, and this was typically complemented by a somber, brooding musical score by Eleni Karaindrou. And then there's the weather in his films: snowy, rainy, overcast, windy, dull, quiet. It all adds up to a measured tempo and a sense of humanistic repose. Ulysses' Gaze is exemplary of these formal qualities.
Ulysses' Gaze could certainly be thought of as one of those pretentious "artsy" films. It's slow, complicated, and unusual, all objections hurled at many foreign film directors - Andrei Tarkovsky, Bela Tarr, and Miklos Jancso being among those most similar to Angelopoulos - but these traits do not a bad film make. It just needs to be viewed in a different mindset, with different expectations, and, if at all possible, with a different frame of reference when it comes to world cinema. Ebert suggests that "A" stands for Angelopoulos, and if that's the case (very likely), then knowing the filmmaker's body of work would also probably be beneficial in unraveling what would then have to be seen, again, like the Fellini and Allen pictures, as an autobiographical exploration as much as anything else.
Ulysses' Gaze, like the best of the late, great Theodoros Angelopoulos, is full of extraordinary visuals, starkly haunting locations, an air of mystery and uncertainty, and a plot complex in its causal development. All this and more make the film well worth a look … or a gaze.