Theodoros Angelopoulos: The Travelling Players

The Travelling PlayersIs there any other great director that is less seen than Theo Angelopoulos? He is another of World Cinema’s great unsung masters, although often noted by his peers and those of us lucky enough to see his work out side of his native Greece, his films for the most part are neglected by international distributors in favour of the older greats like Fredrico Fellini, Andrei Tarkovsky or Ingmar Bergman. Currently in the UK only his 2004 feature film The Weeping Meadow is available on DVD, interestingly as The Weeping Meadow from my view is the weakest of his films to date. Angelopoulos has been directing since the 1960s and currently has fourteen feature films to his name of which at least five are outright masterpieces. But possibly his most famous work and arguably his most austere and powerful is his 1975 feature, his third film as director - The Travelling Players.

The plot follows a performing group of actors from 1939 to 1952; a turbulent period of Greek history. The individuals may change but the troupe goes on, although it gets smaller and smaller as the vicissitudes of history take their toll. Just as the country is torn asunder by political movements, so the actor’s sexual and personal betrayals scar the touring company. The troupes attempts to perform the folk tale “Golfo the Shepherdess” are doomed to failure. The performances never finish as the artifice of the play is always intruded on by the realities of the conflict that surrounds them. In contrast, whenever the film moves into realism or naturalism, artifice then intrudes back. At one point we witness a rape scene, the woman then stands up and gives a monologue to camera. That this doesn’t jar is tribute to the quality of the acting and the expert mixture of styles used in direction. Brechtian devices are frequently used throughout many of Angelopoulos’ films, be it the unnatural and very direct character blocking, the blending of spatial and physical reality without using a single edit, or the aforementioned monologues to camera which break the fourth wall and the reality of the film space with a single look. There are several of these monologues spread through out the films monstrously long 230 minute runtime, although they only make up a very small portion of the films whole, they are in fact some of the films most memorable of moments. Bertolt Brecht was a German playwright, who continually attempted to distance his audience from the material emotionally, so that they might fully engage with the political concepts at work within the play without the risk of having their minds clouded by laughter or tears, fear or empathy. In this sense, The Travelling Players is very much a Brechtian film. Angelopoulos refuses to allow us any meaningful time with any of the characters, they become increasingly interchangeable as the narrative continues, the focus is never with a single individual for any significant stretch of time. By denying us a protagonist, or even a pair of protagonists, the film keeps a very sustained emotional distance which is only matched by the physical distance the camera maintains from the performers. Angelopoulos is noted for his wide frames, his great expansive shots which allow the action to continue around the lens – not just in front of it. His work is often devoid of close-ups and has clearly been designed with the intension of watching it on the big rather than small screen, in The Travelling Players this style holds extra relevance as the subject matter of theatre performances is enhanced by our continued distance from the performers, as if we too are watching a performance of the stage rather than screen, the distance the performers are continually held at is similar to the distance the actors in a theatre piece would be seen from in reality by a sitting audience.

The Travelling PlayersThe camera work is breathtaking: the long takes and shots of people walking recalling Bela Tarr before Bela Tarr. Angelopoulos’ camera moves in time as well as space; a pan can audaciously signify elapsed time of months or years as well as a change of view. A shot of a soldier leaving a bedroom with his wife and going downstairs executes two 180 degree pans, cut seamlessly together to show her lover arriving in her bedroom later. The virtuoso sweeping and gliding through rafters and around staircases is mixed with patient fixed camera shots. An air raid is daringly depicted with just one long shot of a stage in a theatrical rather than cinematic manner. A fire fight between German soldiers and partisans is similarly shown with an unblinking view of prisoners against a wall. The action signified by the sounds from off screen rather than explicitly depicted in front of us, much of the violence in Angelopoulos films is done in this way, the shielding of assault, rape or murder by a deliberately abstracted camera style in some respects renders the action all the more painful or disturbing, the vividness is only restricted by the individual limits of the viewers imagination. This is often sighted as the paradox of Brecht’s Epic-theatre, the fatal flaw in the practitioner’s concept of defamiliarising the audience. In one of Brecht’s most famous plays, Mother Courage, the protagonist is informed that her child has been killed, the titular mother gives a now famous “silent scream” which is designed to keep the audience at a distance by not allowing them to hear her anguish. The flaw in this concept is that we still hear the scream in our minds, and in our minds it is more emotive than any actor could possibly manage on stage.

Angelopoulos’ subtle camera movements are effective too, the almost imperceptive dip of the camera as a man sits down in a chair places you with a morally corrupt character. The long hold on an empty street then follows a car around a corner and the camera stops on a sentry for a while, emphasizing the boredom of the role. His sense of space is awe-inspiring; he catches the zig-zag traversing of a hillside with the same ease as Abbas Kiarostami. The Travelling Players is naturally a very slow film, with fewer shots than you might think possible for a film of such a huge length, approximately eighty balletic images make up the bulk of the action, as we meditate rather than surge through the time and place. A shot of the troupe standing desolately against a wall brings on a feeling of defeat, but then alleviates the tension by opening out joyously into a long shot of a turkey surrounded by virgin snow, the players advance upon the animal in profile as the hunger they feel from war time restrictions is evoked perfectly on screen. His mixture of styles is impeccable. An outrageous 720 degree shot of a rally in a village square being attacked, fleeing and then returning, interspersed with a piper playing “Scotland the Brave”; sits beautifully in the same film.

The Travelling PlayersThe use of location is also of interest, this is a washed out overcast Greece rather than the sparkling watered sun drenched package holiday land we’re used to seeing. People peer from behind broken cottage walls onto the horror of political violence. The interiors are of political graffiti smearing the walls of bare rooms; for these people there are no home comforts. There is a consistency to this cold overcast Greece, the brown and grey, the milky and green; this Greece does not feel or appear like any Greece we’ve seen before, it is the same as other Angelopoulos films, in that Greece appears Baltic rather than Mediterranean, cold rather than warm, bleak rather than hopeful.

Not to overstate the matter, but one might trawl through most the cinema the world has ever produced before finding another film that looks quite like an Angelopoulos film. The comparison to Bela Tarr is accurate not just in terms of visual style, but also in terms of their place in contemporary cinema. It is a small and continually shrinking club of filmmakers who refuse to compromise even the tiniest fraction of their cinematic sensibilities to consumerist concerns. As an example, I direct your attention to how unapologetically downbeat and pessimistic the films outlook is, indeed for the most part Angelopoulos’ films are entirely humourless affairs. This is not altogether a negative as so few film makers are brave enough to forgo any light at the end of the tunnel or even mild instances of humour - but Angelopoulos is amongst those brave few. The closest the film comes to comedy in its entirety is in one stand-out scene as one young female actor is solicited for sex by a member of a local gang, once they’re alone she asks him to strip, as he begins to undress she does not move but rather continues to stare at him as if he were worthless, by the time he is completely undressed he has realised that sex is no longer on the cards, the actor turns and leaves him naked, humiliated and alone. What humour there is in this scene comes from the subverting of male desires and the manipulation of the base human instinct to fuck rather than love, to use rather than embrace. The humiliation is justice in a single move, but in this humiliation lies the wider human tragedy where men view women in such ways and where women must maintain their dignity by literally stripping men of theirs.

The Travelling PlayersAs you will have guessed from this review, the film will not be to everyone’s tastes, indeed at the time of release in 1976, Richard Eder of The New York Times described it as a “bloated spoiled masterpiece” and indicated that the films extended runtime strangled both the film and its audience. The film is not without some minor flaws; the British accents are awful, and the scene where the squaddies and the players dance to “Roll out the Barrel” feels off key. Also, the focus on Greek history means that the full symbolism of this film may not be picked up by those, like myself, who do not have a wider knowledge of the films social political context (but to chastise a film for my own personal ignorance of the times would be a little arrogant, especially considering Britain had such a key part in Greece’s turbulent 20th Century history). If anything the film will prompt you to discover more about the times and the place, Britain and Germany’s part in the three decades of blood shed and political chaos which the film explores. The Travelling Players is not a four-hour history lesson as some may assume, it is instead a rich viewing experience, filled with confident direction and the cinematography, it is paradoxically a spacious, stately, pellucid, didactic yet esoteric, hermetic and opaque film. A film, which is seen by few, but remembered by all who do. Theo Angelopolous represents the last of my five favourite directors, as already stated his films are not easily attainable on DVD and part of the reason I’m dedicating a series of Left Field Cinema to his films is to raise awareness about his works in the hopes of prompting a UK distributor to release his films so that others may enjoy them as much as I have.

M. Dawson and Stephen Souter

Very good review, thanks.

Very good review, thanks.

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