Asked why he’s chose to make movies in the 1996 grab-a-hand-cranked-camera-everyone project Lumière and Company, Theo Angelopoulos took an extra long moment to puff up before answering “to capture the passage of time.” In Landscape in the Mist, the Greek director’s first film to be distributed in the U.S., the notion of time stands not just for the historical continuum of his windy meditations, but also for the growing consciousness of the young protagonists, who, someone says midway through the picture, “don’t care about time going by, and yet…are in a hurry to leave.”
Pubescent Voula (Tania Palaiologou) and her five-year-old brother Alexander (Michalis Zeke) hop a train to Germany to locate the father that exists only in their dreams; repeatedly interrupted, the journey is to continue on foot, car, and boat, but, as young Alexander’s pipes up in the beginning, a child’s voice in the darkness, “This story will never get finished.” Hard to say if a filmmaker could be simultaneously monumental and petty, but Angelopoulos comes pretty close—his epics of Balkan dislocation (The Traveling Players, Ulysses’ Gaze, The Weeping Meadow) are both colossal and aloof, the political inquiries of his canvases undercut by the director’s inflated view of himself as the Last European Visionary.
What keeps Landscape in the Mist from succumbing to the same orgy of artistic self-fondling is his feeling for the characters as people rather than pawns, so that Angelopoulos’s stately, magisterial style serves them instead of the other way around. Acknowledging the children’s innocent point of view while contemplating its fragility, Angelopoulos’s compositions modulate from lyrical to brutal, so that the magical (seemingly every citizen in town becomes transfixed by slowly falling snowflakes) can segue into the stark (the children watch a horse dying in the snow while a wedding party rages on nearby). When Voula is raped in the back of a truck, the camera slowly dollies in on the tarp obscuring the incident, culminating in a close-up of her hand smeared with blood from her violated hymen. The director’s Olympian stance is later reflected in another hand, a sculpture’s severed limb fished out of the Thessaloniki bay and whisked away by an helicopter into the skies, watchful of the characters’ pain yet implacably detached, unreachable.
Champions of the director will decry the emphasis on kids as inferior to Angelopoulos’s political investigators, yet no moment in his more “relevant” works has moved me as much as the circular pan around Voula and itinerant actor Oreste (Stratos Tzortzoglou), with the girl letting out the sobs she has stored within the entire time and her friend fumbling to console the “little loner.” Angelopoulos stays at a distance to trace the characters from tableau to tableau, yet here his camera is tenderly ruminating, almost Mizoguchian, and always respectful of the bruised emotions of children trying to hang on to a vanishing sense of family while hoping to enlarge their identities.
Angelopoulos's palette is muted to start with, but that's no excuse for the damp-looking transfer barely improved from the video copy (complete with full frame-only presentation!), with blacks particularly wan in night scenes. Audio is serviceable, though Eleni Karaindrou's score doesn't need much help to be poignant.
Pensive, tender, unforgettable. The only film so far where Angelopoulos's traveling camera and stretched takes connect with emotions other than self-regard.