Theodoros Angelopoulos: The Beekeeper

The BeekeeperTheo Angelopoulos is a director best known for his sweeping histories; his reputation is for the most part built upon the epic tragedies like The Traveling Players (1975) or Trilogy: The Weeping Meadow (2004) which weave their way through vast expanses of time and space to complete their often tragic narratives. Combining morality plays with political theatre, this directors responses to his nations turbulent political past are Brechtian in technique but overwhelmingly visual in execution. Here however Angelopoulos narrows his gaze onto a shorter period of time and a smaller group of characters, the films relatively brisk 119 minute runtime makes this his shortest film since Days of 36 (1972). Can one of the greatest living directors maintain the majesty of his symphonies when he attempts to conduct a chamber piece?

From film to film there is always common ground. Angelopoulos explores recurring themes and landscapes within majority of his overture, throughout five decades of film making almost every film Angelopoulos has written and directed has centred on a journey, both external (the characters traversing Greece in a large van which houses beehives, heading to the ‘maps other end’) and internally (the character journey in themselves to find some sort of connectedness). Angelopoulos’ other films Landscape in Mist (1988) Ulysses’ Gaze (1995) and Voyage to Cythera (1984) are all structured around the characters physical journey as well as their metaphysical journey. But The Beekeeper in particular reminds of the American road movie as the central character is deliberately travelling to see his friends and family rather than searching for/avoiding someone or thing. The films protagonist, Spyros (Marcello Mastroianni) is a middle-aged teacher who has recently separated from his wife. After the wedding of his daughter he embarks on this voyage of self discovery. He packs his apiaries in a truck and sets off. Along the way he then picks up a young female hitch-hiker (Nadia Mourouzi) but this is no My Big Fat Greek Wild Strawberries where Spyros is softened by his companion; this is a clash of the old Greece laden down and constrained by history and the new rootless youth culture Greece, with no knowledge of history. The pair are parted halfway through the film but are then reunited by chance, Spyros abandons her then embraces her, she abuses his kindness one moment, then tries to seduce him the next. Both generations are alienated within their own nation and they are completely out of step with the rest of the world. Spyros starts the film physically hunched and unresponsive to his family, and remains isolated throughout the film. His meetings with his old comrades are fleeting and shallow. The usual Angelopoulos land/water solidity/fluidity images are present, one scene sees Spyros talking to a friend during a trip to the beech, the friend is physically broken-down by imprisonment for political reasons, at the same time another friend strips naked in the background and wades into the sea - there is no connectedness there. Even in the wedding photo, Spyros doesn’t fit in, his posture is out of place, he is leaning forward so far that he appears to be staring at his daughter’s breasts and this incestuous suggestion is borne out later in a scene where he apologises to his daughter. Meanwhile: the girl has no direction and is not even named; a sign of her lack of history, her anonymity is good as well as bad, she is not labelled with the divisions of the past and thus can not conform to them; she responds to physical stimuli: dancing to rock music, having sex with a young man in the twin bed next to Spyros and staring at him whilst her lover pounds away (is she knowingly seeking a reaction from him or just feeling shame now that he’s woken up? The answer seems to be neither, she has no shame and desires no reaction). Later she gets drunk and literally bites the hand that feeds her - on a whim. Ultimately she is just drifting, rootless and unanchored by culture or tradition. Spyros’ attempts at control are cack handed: the reconciliation with his wife and an attempted seduction of the girl on a ferry comprises of jumping on them and trying to forcibly kiss them, on both occasions the act ends in rejection, attempts at human connections are futile. Her languid attempt at seducing him is mismatched with his more aggressive approach and the lack of connection has devastating consequences in the final scene. Spyros has fallen out of time - The Girl yet to discover it.

Angelopoulos fills his films with symbolism; the use of broken glass is a re-occurring element which comments on Spyros and his women: during their daughters wedding his wife accidentally drops a tray of glasses as she and Spyros look pitifully at each other with no passion, later Spyros drives his truck through a plate glass window of a small café to get to The Girl. These moments are often unrealistic but deliberately so to emphasise the semiotics rather then cover them in a veil of realism. For contemporary audiences used to ultra-realism these moments can seem rather abrasive, during the wedding for example, Spyros’ daughter sees a bird in the house and follows it around the room, the rest of the wedding party join her, we never see the bird and nor does Spyros, he instead chooses to leave the party. The presence of this unseen bird on a surface reading seems bizarre and pointless, but actually the bird is a metaphor for the alienation that Spyros feels, everyone else can see the bird and follow it (even if they don’t understand it) but Spyros remains blind and is forced outside the rest of the group. The characters actions are not necessarily designed within the generally accepted standards of cinematic logic, but there is always a deeper meaning underneath waiting to be found. Be it Spyros picking up his fully grown daughter and singing her a lullaby as if she were still a small child (an action which never elicits looks of shock from the surrounding characters) or our central duo having sex on the stage of an abandoned cinema as if it were a private bedroom, here theatre and cinema are combined on screen, the act of sex becomes a performance rather than an expression of intimacy, hinting that actually the pair are still separate and alone even when they’re at their closest physically – it’s a performance not a reality.

The performances vary in quality and style; these are not easy roles to play, Italian-born actor Mastroianni is not able to show his usual charm playing the stoical and mostly silent Spyros and Mourouzi is almost Bressonian in her acting style. They both feel out of time, but in different ways. It is difficult to connect with the characters on an emotional level; we rarely feel any kind of meaningful connection to Spyros, even with his narrating of events in the form of his journal tracing the health and condition of his beehives. Despite the films Brechtian abstraction of emotion Mastroianni manages to convey Spyros’ sense of alienation brilliantly, the films most heart-breaking moment comes early on as Spyros attempts to say goodbye to his son who hasn’t forgiven him for leaving his mother, the son ignores Spyros, he says good bye again with an agonising hint of desperation in his voice, again the son doesn’t return his farewell and the car drives off leaving Spyros alone with his bees. Such moments are rare and feel almost accidental as emotional engagement is not Angelopoulos’ aim. Mourouzi on the other hand is often extremely irritating as The Girl, a fact that renders her character almost impossible to sympathise with, were the film to be read literally then her unbridled responses to the world around her might appear to be clichés of from a ‘free spirit’ stereotype.

The BeekeeperVisually it is hard to fault an Angelopoulos film, the cinematography is as masterful as usual, but the movement is understated. These are not vast landscapes that the camera is traversing, but dingy apartments, strip lit mini-marts and the cabin of a van. The broken quality of the characters is matched by the lack of the virtuosity shown in Travelling Players or Trilogy: Weeping Meadow. The compositions are of a dank windy Greece where beehives need rocks to anchor them (the hives, laid out like a Greek village upon the hillside also act as a symbol, with several hives being deserted due to a weak queen. Similarly the lack of a unifying element in the country as a whole is creating anomie.) Although there may not be the scope of his other films here, it is still visually impressive, Angelopoulos’ frequent collaborator cinematographer Giorgos Arvantis captures the sun kissed clouds and breaking waves with very deliberate tracking shots and characters moving from shadows to light with perfect precision, rarely does anything happen in the frame of Angelopoulos film which the director did not personally intend or design, the entire production is immaculately executed, it’s as if the entire picture was born directly out of Angelopoulos’ mind rather than shot by an unwieldy film crew – the level of control is unparalleled.

The Beekeeper is only the second film (after Trilogy: The Weeping Meadow) to be released on DVD in the UK by Artificial Eye, it stands as an unusual choice as it is one of director’s weaker efforts. The films score by another frequent Angelopoulos collaborator Eleni Karaindrou, relies heavily on a melancholic saxophone (as a number of 1980’s productions did) and can unfavourably be compared to the music from the UK TV show A Touch of Frost. The diegetic music is also very much of its time, although infrequent, the repeated use of an 80’s pop tune played in cafes and bars across the country with lyrics that describe the character actions, is something of an unfortunate mis-step; as diegetic music however it is tolerable if accidentally quite funny given the datedness of the track in question. A more serious issue however comes in the form of the films rather dubious sexual politics, it seems to be a favourite amongst middle-aged filmmakers to write films about middle-aged men and the young women who they’re romantically attached to. Unfortunately its smacks of fantasy rather than reality most of the time: a sort of wish fulfilment via a fictional proxy at best, a cynical attempt to sell the film using sex appeal at worst. In The Beekeepers case I’m not sure if either category is accurate, but the relationship is something of a world cinema cliché and as such leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Although the film displays both male and female nudity, there is significantly more of the female variety and the directorial choice of having the Girl completely naked in the final scenes whilst Spyros remains fully dressed doesn’t help matters either. The justification for the generation gap is of course the films central thesis; that both old and new Greece are lost and adrift, Spyros and the Girl act as ciphers for these two disparate worlds. But why should the gender configuration be this way: what’s wrong with a middle-aged woman eloping with a young man for once? Despite these flaws The Beekeeper is still an impressive film, although it does not encompass the sweep of events like his epic films, it is every bit as much about the history of Greece. What happens to the flotsam and jetsam washed up after World and Civil wars? This is the hangover from these historical binges.

M.Dawson and Stephen Souter

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