To Vlemma tou Odyssea (Ulysses' Gaze) (1995)
Director: Theodoros Angelopoulos.
Starring: Harvey Keitel (A), Erland Josephson (S., Filmmuseum curator), Maia Morgenstern ('Ulysses' wife), Thanasis Vengos (Taxi driver), Yorgos Michalakopoulos (Friend and Journalist), Dora Volanaki (Old Woman), Mania Papadimitriou, Yorgos Konstas, Agni Vlahou, Angel Ivanof, Ljuba Tadic, Giannis Zavradinos, Vangelis Kazan, Mirka Kalatzopoulou, Gert Llanaj.
in search of lost film reels, a Greek-American director travels across the Balkans, ending up in bomb destroyed Sarajevo
Spoiler Warning: below is a summary of the entire movie.
An old silent Greek film is shown on the screen. It is of weavers in a Greek village, 1905. It is the first film ever made in Greece. "But is it the first?"
Winter 1954. Famous film maker Yannakis, at the harbor of Salonica, dies while filming a blue sailing boat. He had rambled on about three undeveloped film reels.
A Greek filmmaker identified only as "A" living in the United States, returns to his native Ptolemas, Greece. He is there to attend a special screening of his extremely controversial film.
In the village, there is a big controversy over the showing of "A's" film. "A" looks over the place where he once lived. The place hasn't changed much. He says to the men with him that over yonder there used to be an old army barracks housing some 500 soldiers. News arrives that the mayor won't commit himself on the film and the town is split in two over it. "A" says he was here some 35 years ago. His companion tells him that Balkan realities are much tougher than Serb reality of the past. It is now like sailing in dark waters. (The biggest problem is the on-going Bosnian War.) "A" is fascinated by the story of the Manakia brothers, who criss-crossed the Balkans recording the region's history and customs. He is fascinated by them, but says: "This is a personal journey."
"A" is about to get into a taxi, but sees a pretty woman who jogs his memory. (The riot police confront the demonstrators protesting the film.) "A" last saw the woman at the railroad station. (The crowd confronts the police in a stand-off.) "A" gets in the taxi to continue his journey.
At the border with Albania. A woman there asks if she could accompany "A" on the way to Korytsa. She wants to see her sister. She saw her 47 years ago during the Civil War. A big bus arrives at the border. A lot of illegal Albanians are being deported from Greece. They walk over the border into Albania. Other Albanians make their way toward Greece. The taxi arrives at Korytsa and the old lady gets out of the car to find a city she does not recognize at all. The taxi driver leaves the city. The driver stops and tells "A" that behind the mountains lies the Skopje-Albanian border. He can take a bus and in two hours he will be in Monastir. "A" asks the taxi driver to drop him off at the border.
Early 1904. The account of the Manakia brothers. "At Yannakis's insistence we left Yanera after six years. Our photography shop was not doing well. We came to Monastir." The first of the Balkan Wars broke out and then came World War I. They headed for Avdella, but the roads were cut off. All the armies of Europe have trudged through the main street of Monastir. They set up their first movie theatre in Monastir after WWI, when Yannakis came back from exile in Philipoupolis.
"A" is supervising a documentary of the Manakia brothers. The Monastir theatre operated until 1939, just before WWII. A Chaplin film caught fire one day and burned the theatre down. The brothers parted. One went to Salonica. In 1954 the archives of the brothers was sold to the Yugoslavian government and then to the film archives in Skopje.
"A" tries to get some help from the local librarian. He tells her that all the Balkan conflicts are reflected in their work. But the librarian won't help him. "A" then takes the Skopje-Sofia-Bucarest Express. There he meets the librarian again and again talks with her. She gets off the train, but "A" continues to talk with her. She becomes so fascinated that she jumps back on board to hear more from "A". He tells how the three reels of missing film became an obsession with him. The librarian and "A" start kissing. A guard comes to check on their passports. He tells the couple that there is a small problem and that they are to come with him. They let the librarian across the border, but not "A". He is taken to a small room where he sits on a short bench. An official reads from a document: "Your brother Miltos was smarter than you. He got off to Albania in time." The document has the date of January 7, 1915. Found in the house of Yannaki and Miltos Manaki was an important cache of firearms and explosives. The weapons were believed to be for attacks and sabotage against the Bulgarian army and the allied German army to be carried out by terrorist and anarchist groups connected with the "Federation" organization based in Salonica. The military court of the Bulgarian army sentenced to death Yannaki and Miltos Manaki. All their film was confiscated. This was in the time of King Ferdinand of Bulgaria. The death sentence was commuted to exile in Plovdiv for the duration of the war. "A" tells the border personnel that he is going to Philipoupolis, but they reroute him to Plovdiv instead.
A surreal flashback. The grown "A" sees his mother. She tells him that they have a trip of six hours to reach Costanza. Mom reaches home. There "A" sees his grandparents and other relatives. His father is not home. They took him away New Year's Eve. But now the camps have been liberated. He should be coming home soon. Father returns home to mother. Happy 1945!
While the family dances, two men arrive. They dance together and then they take Dad away. Happy 1948! Mom asks Spyro to take them away. Spyro got the permit for 80 Greek families to leave. Someone mentions that Costanza will be quite deserted after they leave. Mom goes to Greece.
The maid comes in to say that the People's Confiscation Committee is here. The men go upstairs. Happy New Year, 1950. The Confiscation Committee men take a lot of stuff out of the house, including the piano and the piano bench. The family takes one last photo together.
"A" wakes up in a hotel room. The librarian is with him in bed. He walks outside and sees a huge statue of Lenin being placed on a ship to be taken to Germany. The huge head is hoisted in the air to be put on the ship. The librarian joins him. He cries, he says, because I can't love you. They part. She returns to the hotel. "A" jumps on the ship with Lenin's statue.
1905, Bucharest, Rumania. The Manaki brothers buy a machine for the movies. They comment that the characters look like puppets, all jerky. A trip is made to London to buy a camera.
Tripartite Border Control. The Lenin ship reports that there is nobody aboard the vessel except the crew. "A" gets off the ship and goes through a border check without incident. He is met by journalist Niko in Belgrade. The journalist has lived in Belgrade for three years. Niko takes "A" to see Youisitsa who had the undeveloped reels for a while. He says that after Yannaki died, Miltos Manaki sold all his material to him. For twenty years he tried to develop the films but nothing came of it. A colleague of his from Sarajevo, an expert in film development of the period, took the films to see if he could develop them. Then the war came. Niko tells "A" that he will have to wait until the end of the war. But "A" does not discourage easily. He tells Niko that he has to get to Sarajevo, even without a permit. Niko gives in and tells him to take a boat on the Danube river to head to the Sava River, then along the river tributaries to Sarajevo.
A woman who resembles the librarian awakens "A" to take him down to the boat on the river. The woman goes with him. They row until the next morning and then stop at the woman's home. The home is largely burned-out. She shouts out in pain the name of the missing Vania, her husband. "A" and the woman sleep in the house overnight. The next morning the woman washes the film maker's clothes. They hear rifle shots. She runs to the house. She gives "A" some of her husband's clothes. After his change of clothes, the widow lays "A" down. She kisses him many times.
Alone "A" rows to an area with a great deal of bombed-out buildings. He tries to speak to someone to ask them if this is Sarajevo, but everyone in the city streets is running for their lives. They are afraid of the snipers. "A" finally finds a boy who takes him to see the film developer. The film makers goes with the film developer and archivist to the place where the films are stored. The film developer tells "A" that he almost had the fluid formula exactly right. He had only one more change to make. But then the war came. He says: "I have it in memory. But, what's the point now, with all this slaughter going on?"
"A" tells the film developer that he has no right to keep the three reels of film locked away. A young woman that looks a lot like the librarian comes in looking for her father, the film developer. She tells "A" that his face looks familiar. She has to leave. Alone "A" looks around and finds the reels of film he wants. When the film developer returns he tells him: "You were making headway." "A" urges the film developer to make one more try. He agrees to try. The film developer asks "A" to come with him. "A" sees the developed film slowly rolling out onto a film reel. A little later the film developer shouts: "It's done!"
"A" asks the film developer about all the voices that can be heard outside on the street. The man tells "A" that there is heavy fog outside and that it is a time for the people to come out from their hiding places to walk around, since the snipers cannot see them. The film developer says that the fog is the city's best friend. So "A" and the film developer go out for a walk. They listen to music and parts of a play being performed. They see several funerals taking place. The young daughter shows up again. She asks "A": "Shall we dance?" They dance. "A" asks her if she will wait for him; she says yes; and "A" promises that he will return.
They now walk along the riverside. The film developer goes ahead to see what is going on and warns "A" not to move from his present spot. "A" hears many shots. A man tells another to drop them into the river with the other children. They then get into their vehicle and leave. "A" heads forward to check and finds the film developer and his daughter, and lots of other people, dead. He cries over the bodies.
"A" returns to the film archives.
Good movie if you forgive it for being too long, being a little too surreal at times and not providing much background information on the places and events that "A" deals with on his personal journey through the Balkans. It's obvious from the trip that the Balkans have had a very difficult history. There were and are a great many conflicts in the area. And I did think that going to Sarajevo, a battle ground, during the Bosnian War was a bit foolish of the hero of the film. He could easily have been killed and his search for the missing three film reels would have been immediately ended.
Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.
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