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Ulysses’ Gaze

Ulysses’ Gaze

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Widely criticized for their depictions of police violence against residents of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas, Brazilian director Jose Padilha’s wildly successful Elite Squad and Elite Squad: The Enemy Within represented a fascinating diptych, an attempt to tick the boxes of the police procedural while probing rampant corruption and abuse of power. Padilha’s first foray into Hollywood filmmaking was 2014’s ill-fated RoboCop remake, a nonetheless fascinating stab at updating the original Paul Verhoeven film’s pitch-black worldview for the globalized economy. The contradictions continue with 7 Days in Entebbe, a painfully leaden attempt to “hear both sides” of the war between Israel and Palestine vis-a-vis the 1976 hijacking of Air France Flight 139.

Playwright Gregory Burke’s previous screenwriting credit was for ‘71, Yann Demange’s thriller whose background is Northern Ireland’s Troubles, and though he and Padilha have made their names on full-throttle actioners, much of 7 Days in Entebbe is build-up. The film immediately begins with German bookseller Wilfried Böse (Daniel Brühl) and fellow Revolutionary Cells member Brigitte Kuhn (Rosamund Pike) taking over a plane traveling from Tel Aviv to Paris (by way of Athens), alongside two Palestinian terrorists, with the intention of securing the release for over 50 Palestinian “freedom fighters” locked up in Israel and four other countries. The captors eventually find safe haven in Entebbe, Uganda under the regime of His Excellency General Idi Amin Dada (Nonso Anozie, supplying more comic relief than menace). The terrorists make a point of separating the Israeli passengers from the gentiles—a condition of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (backers of the operation) that becomes an immediate problem for Böse, well aware of how it looks for Germans to be threatening Jews with summary execution.

The film jumps between the terrorist-hostage standoff and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s (Lior Ashkenazi) cabinet deliberations, and nearly every exchange of dialogue sounds like sparring blocks of Wikipedia-like information, with career Israeli politicians summarizing the past few years’ worth of events to each other for a presumptively ignorant audience. Despite these oversimplifications, the tit for tat between Rabin and his hardliner gadfly, Defense Minister Shimon Peres (Eddie Marsan), isn’t uninteresting, as it constantly racks focus back to the political expenditure of negotiating—or even appearing to negotiate—with terrorists in the eyes of the media.

But the conflation of these historical complexities makes for cheap pathos throughout 7 Days in Entebbe, complete with weeping mothers and the seemingly endless dredging up of the terrorists’ obvious moral equivalence. Playing the more devout anti-Israeli terrorist, Pike is convincing enough as Kuhn, and the case could be made that the Revolutionary Cells member—barking commands, popping amphetamines, slowly losing her grip on reality—is the sole tragic protagonist on the terrorists’ side, as Brühl is given little to do but furrow his brow and spew RAF-era Radical Theory for Dummies.

As the Israelis begin to decide on a course of action, a third plotline opens up concerning an Israel Defense Forces commander, Zeev Hirsch (Ben Schnetzer), and his bohemian girlfriend, Sarah (Zina Zinchenko), who’s upset that Zeev has to report to duty instead of seeing her dance recital (performed by the real-life Batsheva Dance Company). Sarah’s insistence that Zeev is in a position to choose between the mission and attending her concert makes for a particularly maddening through line, as this oversimplified disagreement is all the film will tell us about these two characters.

Finally, Rabin initiates Operation Thunderbolt, wherein a 29-man IDF unit, led by the current prime minister’s brother, Yonatan “Yoni” Netanyahu (Angel Bonnani), raided the Entebbe airport and saved the hostages. This high-stakes operation ought to at least provide a high-octane payoff (Netanyahu was the lone IDF soldier killed, and the film probably wouldn’t exist if the raid had ended in failure). Padilha instead ends up delivering what appears to be an operatic salute to the IDF, crosscutting the raid with Sarah’s performance back in Tel Aviv and aligning the troops’ efficiency with the choreography of limber bodies in tandem—and the widespread applause that follows.

While the final scene is a plea for peace after all the political machinations, the one-two punch speaks less to an unextinguished crisis in human rights led by the so-called “only democracy in the Middle East” than a failed bid by the filmmakers to have it both ways, representing the warped rationales of the terrorists while celebrating the IDF’s strategic ingenuity. Nearly a decade ago, Olivier Assaya’s Carlos examined the same radical faction’s inevitable ideological dissolution without sacrificing the nail-biting suspense demanded of the genre approach. Maybe Padilha is trying to portray an agonizing political impasse, but he caps it with a hearty dose of rah-rah, shoot-em-up heroics. These final moments prove noncommittal at best, and deeply cynical at worst; ultimately, the approach comes off entirely embarrassing.

Anyone unfamiliar to Theo Angelopoulos’s work could start chronologically, or they can simply skip to his Landscape in the Mist and leave it at that. 1995’s Ulysses’ Gaze is considerably more evocative than the Greek director’s fatuous Eternity and the Day though it’s nonetheless laughably pretentious. This tediously paced epic traces a country’s political upheavals and one man’s misplaced nationalism. “A” (a clueless Harvey Keitel) must find three lost reels of films produced by two brother-filmmakers in 1905 and located somewhere in the Balkans. Ulysses’ Gaze is mindful of the protagonist’s staunch need to capture and liberate a myth. Angelopoulos’s signature elliptical flourishes are on full display here. During the film’s opening scene, “A” discusses the Manakis brothers’ works with a former assistant of the two men. Are they occupying the same space or have “A” and the old man met at a bridge that spans the space and time continuum, Angelopoulos seems to ask. There are many such elegiac moments in Ulysses’ Gaze but all feel calculated and beleaguered by their own weight. In one of the film’s most haunting sequences, an army of soldiers butts heads with a pack of townsfolk carrying umbrella. Their confrontation creates a wall between “A” and a lone female wanderer. There is no doubt that we are in the presence of greatness, but Angelopoulos’s compositions are so calculated they leave no room for spontaneity. (Curiously, Angelopoulos made a stink at Cannes when his film lost to Kusturica’s far superior Underground.) A statue of Lenin is taken apart and transported down a river. Though the sequence serves to shed light on the looming presence of communism, the scene goes on for what seems like the duration of the October Revolution. Not surprisingly, the film’s most effective scene is also its least pretentious. Angelopoulos stunningly recounts the protagonist’s entire family history via one long shot composed of moving snapshots from his many New Years festivities. The entire film reeks of Angelopoulos’s delusion of grandeur: he fancies himself a poet first and a filmmaker second. Regardless, he’s been making the same like since 1991’s The Suspended Step of the Stork. Don’t be surprised if Angelopoulos’s next picture finds Willem Dafoe playing some a cheese-maker travelling through Pompeii and contemplating the political and social importance of gouda.

Fox Lorber
176 min
Theo Angelopoulos
Theo Angelopoulos, Tonino Guerra, Petros Markaris
Harvey Keitel, Maia Morgenstern, Erland Josephson, Thanassis Vengos, Yorgos Michalakopoulos, Dora Volanaki