Although I’d hoped to write a comprehensive new essay about Theo Angelopoulos’s epic The Weeping Meadow as my entry in the month-long Contemplative Cinema Blog-a-thon—sponsored by critic Harry Tuttle of Screenville—various professional obligations, coupled with a nasty week-long bout of strep throat, made it impossible. As an under-the-wire stopgap, here’s an expanded, illustrated version of a column that originally appeared in New York Press in 2005. Angelopoulos’s film about displaced peasants coping with natural and manmade disaster was one of my Top 10 movies that year, ranked right after The New World, a film with which it would fit nicely on a double-bill. I think it fits Harry’s loosely-defined criteria for a contemplative film. Its ideas are not just conveyed mainly through picture and sound, they’re specifically elucidated through very, very long takes, often from “a great and detached distance” (the original headline of the review). The resultant sense of quasi-omniscient “real time” sweep is a director’s analogy for history’s cool scrutiny.
Movies don’t have to get physically close to their characters to draw you into their world; they can achieve a different kind of intimacy by standing back and reminding us of how small we are. Theo Angelopoulos’ The Weeping Meadow demonstrates this principle. The first installment in a projected trilogy summing up the 20th Century, it’s an epic film of a type that’s rarely attempted. Like Barry Lyndon—and Homer, whom the script and imagery invoke—it prefers physical distance to closeness, and repeatedly places its main characters, the members of a refugee family, in the larger context of geography and history, following them through poverty, the rise and fall of fascism, and a horrendous series of disasters. It’s probably the largest production of Angelopoulos’ career, but the movie’s relentless formal precision—it’s composed mainly in medium and long shots, with long takes whenever possible—makes you think not about production values, but about the fragility of individuals caught up in the gears of history. It finds a cool-headed but empathetic visual analogy for the way we tend to envision history: as anecdotes about masses of unknown people moving from place to place, enduring unimaginable suffering, then shaking off the pain, reinventing themselves and moving on.
The movie begins with a longshot of a mass of people crossing a flooded plain—Greeks escaping the Red Army’s invasion of Odessa. They walk toward the camera—toward us—as an undifferentiated mass, mere black specks on the horizon. The camera cranes down to their level, gradually looking at them from shoulder-level rather than from above (a harbinger of how the scene will briefly personalize them without quite individualizing them). A narrator tells us of their plight as if describing migrating wildlife. Then an unseen spectator cries out—from somewhere behind us—“Hey! Who are you? Where are you from?” The refugees stop and face the camera with a particular family centered in the frame, and then one man effectively takes over narration duties and begins reciting his group’s narrative while the entire assembly (like a tribe or congregation) looks right at us, some seemingly apprehensive of what we might think, others indifferent, still others staring in stone-faced defiance, as if daring us to pass judgment.
Then, even more surprisingly, the camera, which had been zooming in slowly—implicitly promising to end in a closeup picking out a single character with which we can “identify”—gracefully tilts down, focusing on the family’s reflection in the water at their feet, then tilting further, until the people vanish from the frame and only their reflection remains. Then the camera slowly unfocuses so that even the family’s reflections become indistinct—impressionistic color blobs on the water—before merging with the rippling water and dissolving to the film’s opening credits sequence, a montage of historic photos. (For a frame-by-frame breakdown of this opening, scroll to the end of this article.)
Most movies operate under the the implied understanding that the camera represents “us,” the viewer. Most commercial narratives adhere to a so-called “invisible” style that averts the film’s own gaze from that knowledge. The director of the so-called “invisible” movie (the sort of director a meat-and-potatoes film critic would praise as “a craftsman”) knows he’s not supposed to break that fourth wall and remind us that we’re watching a movie. It’s like a gentleman’s agreement between the movie and the viewer that a certain distance will be respected. But Angelopolous is no gentleman. Here, in the very first scene of an epic that’s about as distanced from sentimentality as a movie can get, he commits a stylistic act of radical intimacy, flouting that implied understanding between viewer and movie. (The narrator says not that someone cried out to the refugees, but that it’s “as if” someone cried out to them; it’s “as if” the film itself asked them the question.) The director’s form-conscious style declares that The Weeping Meadow’s truest, deepest subject is not any particular character, or even a specific time and place, but the means by which we perceive history—the angles and distances from which we see (or fail to see) it, and the inevitable process by which stories blur together to create group histories, then legends, ultimately to be forgotten save for one or two broad brush strokes.
As the tale unfolds, its characters—orphaned refugee Eleni, or Helen (Alexandra Aidini), her adoptive brother and future husband Alexis (Nikos Poursadinis) and their children—at first seem as tiny and contrived as figurines in a diorama, and Angelopoulos enforces that notion by composing virtually the entire movie as a series of immense tableaus. The family’s house is swallowed by flood water and stays submerged for what feels like an eternity; the drowning house is often framed in extreme longshot, putting it in the context of other houses we never visit; meanwhile, rowboats drift through the frame. The abduction and torture of average citizens at the hands of fascist goons is conveyed in a meticulous, slow crane shot that looks down on police herding prisoners into unseen rooms on a dimly lit street. (It’s like the way Roman Polanski filmed the ghetto rebellion in The Pianist, peering down from the hero’s apartment window across the street.) A labor activist dies in a field of white sheets drying on laundry lines.
Adapt to Angelopoulos’ stately rhythms—no small thing to ask, given the movie’s three hour running time—and you’ll be amazed by the movie’s power, which builds very slowly as we watch these specks move through time, dancing and feasting and playing music, marrying and raising kids, enlisting in the army, scouring the countryside in search of missing loved ones and plotting a desperate, perhaps pointless escape to America.
The Weeping Meadow reminded me of poet and critic Vachel Lindsay’s statement that characterization in movies isn’t like characterization in novels or plays. We feel for movie characters as children feel for their dolls—personalizing them by deciding to care, imprinting their featureless surfaces with our feelings and dreams. When they break, it hurts.
Matt Zoller Seitz is editor-in-chief and publisher of The House Next Door, a contributor to the The New York Times film section, and a former columnist for New York Press and The Star-Ledger.