The Travelling Players (O Thiassos)
Director: Theo Angelopoulos. Cast: Stratos Pahis, Aliki Georgouli, Eva Kotamanidou, Maria Vassiliou, Petros Zarkadis, Yannis Firios, Vangelis Kazan, Kiriakos Katrivanos, Alekos Boubis, Nina Papazaphiropoulou, Greg Evaghelathos, Kosta Stiliaris. Screenplay: Theo Angelopoulos.

I am about to utter one of those statements that reviewers dread having to make, because it doesn't speak too well of me, and it is always guaranteed to rile certain hard-and-fast expectations about what film reviewing is. But here goes: I loved Theo Angelopoulos' The Travelling Players, which I did not fully understand, and in some senses, could barely follow.

So now that's on the table. Now, why is it such a big deal? More than sounding like tepid praise (which it isn't meant to be), more than belying my own grasp of history and narrative (which, in the case of Greece and Greek cinema, I never pretended to have), my confession unsettles me because it seems like a direct avenue into a bad and predictable punchline. Did you ever hear the one about the film critic who fawned over a four-hour movie in a foreign language that uses nearly interchangeable characters and scattered Classical allusions to illuminate three decades of political turmoil? What do you do when faced with a movie like that? The easiest response is to call it a masterpiece and move on. After all, the best authorities indicate that Theo Angelopoulos is a genius, so Our Green but Prudent Critic wisely elects not to rock the boat.

This is like a pure, distilled version of what so many readers of film criticism despise. I have absolutely no doubts that the irked respondents to my pans of The Matrix and The Green Mile, those colorful epitheteurs who have written to inquire why I can't just enjoy an escapist entertainment, or why I don't know how to have fun, or how it feels to be so out of touch with the popular audiences of a deeply populist medium, will find certifiable proof of their suspicions when they hear me praise such esoteric, cryptic material as The Travelling Players. If these readers even give me another thought ever again (which is, in itself, highly unlikely), now they may take fuller confidence that I am, just as they suspected, a snob, a masochist, a walking irrelevance, probably all three. Plus, most film reviewers, if we're honest, can easily recall those years when we loved good movies but didn't fully know why good movies were good. It's sort of a built-in sin of the profession to admire that which you do not understand, unless you adopt the equally pitiful stance of deploring it. And it's comforting, if not always altogether true, to avow that we entirely break this habit once our apprentice years have passed.

Then again, all moviegoers, beyond just the critics, share in this practice, even though no one wants to talk about it. Is there anyone out there who might have inflated your reaction to Mystic River just a little, because it arrived pre-fixed with a Cannes & Cahiers seal of quality? Did you see American Splendor or Rushmore or Wonder Boys and secretly wonder what all the fuss was about? Is it ever any fun to be sitting on the couch after the last shot of The Rules of the Game or (egads!!) Citizen Kane, thinking, "What's so great about that, anyway?" Even fessing up to an underwhelmed reaction is only a first step, frequently compromised by the self-abasing rhetoric of bad break-ups: the problem isn't you, Orson, it's me (even though it's totally you, you know I think it's you!) For all I know, Edward Yang's Yi Yi (A One and a Two...) and Hou Hsaio-hsien's The Puppetmaster really are sublime experiences, but I found them dull dull dull. Still, there's that cautious inner voice, bred by the desire to learn and to be challenged, nourished by the Time Out Film Guide and the National Society of Film Critics, that urges appreciation even when it isn't fully felt. Maybe it's true that that which bores us but does not kill us really does make us stronger? Is it true that some cinema is just good for you, despite the medicinal taste?

All of this is given not as preparation for my thoughts on The Travelling Players but as a self-defensive prologue, a confession of sins committed elsewhere and questions asked at other times. I raise them now because I wanted to be extra sure that these were not the reasons I was aglow after The Travelling Players, which honestly strikes me, in all its alienation and opacity, as a thrilling and important and good motion picture. Its dull patches, enigmas, and repetitions are purposeful and fascinating, just as its revelations and traumas and poignant celebrations are purposeful and fascinating. My enthusiasm for the film is mixed with bewilderment—there was hardly a moment in this four-hour movie that I didn't find, at some level, bewildering—but that is not the same thing, I don't think, as naïve praise or closeted frustration. I heartily urge you to see The Travelling Players, and then I urge you to call me, so you can tell me your idea of what this thing is about, and clear up some of what happens in it.

Made in 1974 and released on home video by New Yorker Films just five years ago, The Travelling Players is writer-director Angelopoulos' angry, bereft, but strangely patient response to the political and moral collapse of his country. What little I know about Greek history could dance on the head of a pin, and while Angelopoulos is not really here to inform, the film certainly indicates the broad strokes of what you need to know. Which is mostly that Greece was an insane and deadly mess from the 1920s through 1952, when the present timeframe of this temporally loopy film takes place. There are, by the way, no strong signs that things will improve from here: after years of Turkish invasions and counter-invasions, Italian invasions, Nazi occupation, British occupation, deposed kings, disgraced Prime Ministers, coups and semi-coups, communist uprising and outright civil war, Greece inhabits another uncertain juncture, soon to withstand yet another semi-fascist nationalist ruler, or another foreign intervention, or another wholescale disintegration. During the movie's inaugural moments, a truck barrels through the puddled, dirty streets of Aegios spewing pamphlets into the air and blaring campaign slogans on behalf of Alexandros Papagos. As a first scene, even if you don't know of Papagos' imminent "election" and reactionary politics, this is even more dismal than watching that Walker for President van wander the empty avenues of Robert Altman's Nashville. Rarely do cinema audiences need much prompting to be cynical about political aspirants, but it's notable how instantly this single image, shot in a besmudged and inky combo of grays, browns, and blues, conveys the desolate heartache of Greek self-identity.

Also present in this scene, and just as desolate, are the titular band of roving actors, loaded down with heavy overcoats and dingy suitcases. Immediately, we know that these travelling players will not infuse the movie with life and bounce like George Cukor's do in Sylvia Scarlett, or withstand the challenges of plague and death as in Bergman's The Seventh Seal, or unlock some buried secret of the plot as in Hamlet, or lure the artist or audience into any Brechtian or Pirandellian wonderment at the spontaneous power of improvised gesture or the metaphysical profundity of imagined realities. In all their notable appearances in European film and theater, it is hard to imagine a troupe of actors less boisterous or plucky or cunning or invigorating than Angelopoulos' bunch. It's hard to even tell these players apart, as they make their slow and sloven progress through the landscape and through the movie. Even the most tempting tool at our disposal—names like Orestes and Elektra, hearkening back to Aeschylus' doomed House of Atreus—may not be wholly reliable, because we quickly start applying mythological attributes to virtually faceless people who may or may not deserve them.

While some devastating monologues, harsh betrayals, and elated reunions eventually start to distinguish the members of the troupe, we still leave The Travelling Players with markedly little sense of the individual protagonists, or even of the actors playing them. Stratos Pahis and Aliki Georgouli, as the husband and wife who lead the troupe (which also includes their son and two daughters), both offer gut-wrenching, ten-minute soliloquies straight to the camera at different moments of the movie, when every line on these actors' faces and every terse movement of their bodies feels indelible...and even then, once they sink back into the ensemble, you may not find them easy to recognize.

It's an odd and untraceable technique that allows Angelopoulos to compel our full, compassionate attention during an extraordinarily long epic about people we can't even remember, often in circumstances we don't fully understand, and within a narrative sequence so riddled with flashbacks and flash-forwards that even the lines between cause and effect or life and death become blurred. Even casual denizens of the arthouse will have seen all of these techniques implemented in other movies, though not necessarily in the same combination, or to the same degree, or at all to the same effect. The recurring motif by which the players' rendition of a pastoral piece called Golfo, the Shepherdess is forever interrupted is not funny like it would be for Bu?uel, partly because for Bu?uel the point would be the fact of interruption itself, whereas for Angelopoulos the reason and manner of every interruption is urgent and distinctive.

To take a richer example, an Alain Resnais film, say Hiroshima, mon amour or Last Year at Marienbad, is just as circuitous in its chronological sequence as is The Travelling Players, and those films, too, are intimately concerned with wounds in national memory and collective experience. But I'm sure that if you sat Alain Resnais down and asked him what Marienbad is about, he would say, "Time and memory"; if you posed Angelopoulos the same question about The Travelling Players, my strong hunch is that he would say it is a film about Greece. The temporal daring of the film, much like its remarkably long and static framings and its nearly anonymous cast, are unmissable attributes of nearly every sequence, and yet somehow The Travelling Players never seems to be about its formal dexterity. The same aching sincerity about his nation's (mis)fortune's that made Sokurov's Russian Ark more than an exercise in one-shot wonder makes The Travelling Players more than a bold test of montage or of audience stamina. Certainly The Travelling Players, which is almost as long as three Russian Arks, is also the more austere of the two pictures, since Angelopoulos denies himself any fancy costumes or lush mazurkas to draw in the viewer or listener.

At the same time, The Travelling Players is never a chore, and it passes much more quickly than you'd think it might, because we care about or startle at or rebel against or lament almost everything we see, even when we aren't immediately sure why—and we occasionally change our minds, and even change them back. As Chantal Akerman did with Jeanne Dielman, her deservedly legendary 225-minute inquiry into alienated housewifery, Angelopoulos proves himself to be so immersed in the concerns of the picture (just as ideological as Akerman's, though his are historical where hers were domestic) that the yearning to know, the impatience with daily hypocrisy, the almost entomological scrutiny of human behavior becomes a shared concern of the audience: Angelopoulos' passion scales the formidable hurdle of his formal severity and becomes our passion, too. Places like Vourla and Thessalon?ki and Omonia Square, people named Constantine and Scobie and Papagos, could hardly seem farther from my experience, and though The Travelling Players doesn't have a single ingratiating bone in its body—nor is the film out to incite global fervor about local crises, in the fashion of The Battle of Algiers—it awakens and broadens a political capacity in even the most unversed viewer. Rape, execution, famine, burial, capture, and impressment all take place over the course of the movie, and gunshots occur with the regularity of mile markers on a highway; this is to say nothing of the overthrows, massacres, and military battles that unfold off-camera. The biggest shock is how none of this troubles the placid tone and pace of the movie, which remains as unflappable as in a dream (which is why some of the flashbacks and flash-forwards are even harder to notice). Angelopoulos is a student and critic of history, as well as its agonized child, tacitly but unceasingly posing the question of why all of this has happened, and is happening. His will to know, which carries over to us, is deeper and richer than any sensationalist could achieve, and The Travelling Players thus has the rare power to instill revolutionary sentiments without pyrotechnics, without even reaching an obvious climax. The whole movie is actually a climax, fraught at every moment with uncertainty, risk, and the bone-weary coping strategies of everyday life.

All of this is ingrained at the formal level in those slow, fixed, extended shots for which Angelopoulos is famous, and which occasionally give way to pans and zooms that, for the very reason of their habitual absence, feel like events in themselves. I repeatedly found myself craning my neck to see around the edge of a shot, which is an absurd but understandable impulse: the action in an Angelopoulos scene usually poses a riddle whose cause, solution, or crisis lurks just out of the frame. This is why the idiom of theater works so well for Angelopoulos: the proscenium stage echoes the fixed boundaries of his static camera, with the same nervous energies and fathomless surprises waiting to arrive or intrude. Also, one of the reviews I read after watching The Travelling Players likened the constant wandering and tense apprehension of the movie and its characters to the Greek myth of the Minotaur in the Labyrinth, which strikes me as an especially apt connection, although mid-century Greece seemed to have more than one Minotaur hanging around its shadows.

By the end of The Travelling Players, you may wonder who isn't a Minotaur: is anyone to be trusted? Is there room left in the world for bravery, hope, possibility, art? (Unlike most films by European auteurs, The Travelling Players does not take it for granted that art is a synonym for any of those other terms.) Having ceded my entire morning and early afternoon to this movie, I immediately rushed to a nearby library to learn more about Greece and to hunt down a sharp review with a well-considered response to the film—already signs of a film that has achieved its mission, at least in part. Most of the critics I read were just as baffled as I was, though their tones ranged from the awestruck to the offended. What connects all the reviews, including the one I am trying to write, is a sense of The Travelling Players as an experience to be reckoned with, on both the aesthetic and political fronts. If the movie were exhibited as a gallery installation, its somber and magisterial frames mounted across rooms and rooms, the visuals alone (pale faces, hazy colors, dilapidated buildings that actually look dilapidated instead of production-design dilapidated) would tell a powerful story of sorrow and unrest. The major monologues, played without visual accompaniment, would offer redoubtable testimonies to a nation's grief, its victimization, and its own self-betrayal. The actors, rarely showcased in the film, also work perfectly in synch with Angelopoulos' frankly communist prioritization of groups, ideas, and ensembles over individuals and unique emotions. I know I didn't hear every note that is sounded by this tough, detailed, and highly allusive movie, but none of the notes I did hear rang false. I also never stopped listening, and in fact grew increasingly eager to hear, and to see. To me, that's one way to describe a legitimately great movie. Grade: A

Cannes Film Festival—FIPRESCI Prize
Berlin Film Festival—Interfilm Award (Forum of New Cinema)

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