It is easy to joke about Theo Angelopoulos, maker of such exceeding long and exceedingly slow intellectual epics as â€˜Eternity and a Dayâ€™, a film that felt only marginally shorter than its title. Itâ€™s even harder to resist parody now the great master is making a trilogy of films that modestly set out to define the past century.
On the evidence of â€˜The Weeping Meadowâ€™, however, we may have to find a new butt for our jokes. No one is saying the famously stern Greek auteur has gone mainstream, but this is his most accessible film in decades and contains such nakedly bourgeois fripperies as emotions and characters that might almost be real. When I tell him how many people cried when they saw his first instalment, the story of Greek refugees from the Russian revolution adrift in their ancient homeland, he jolts back in his chair, momentarily horror-struck. Yet â€˜The Weeping Meadowâ€™clearly shows Angelopoulos is going soft in his old age â€” or what he prefers to term his â€œAristotelian periodâ€™â€™. But then, even arthouse legends haveoccasionally to consider the audience, when they are in danger of not having one any more.
I meet him in Thessaloniki, the northern Greek city where the new film is centred, on one of these bright clear winter days Angelopoulos hates. Living in Europeâ€™s sunniest country is a constant trial for a man who only shoots in fog or rain. It is so clear, in fact, you can see Mount Olympus across the gulf, on whose lofty heights Angelopoulos has all but dwelt since â€˜The Travelling Playersâ€™ made him an art-cinema immortal a quarter of a century ago. â€œOf all the thousands of scenes Iâ€™ve shot,â€ he says, â€œthere have only been one or two images I can honestly say were original â€” that were from my own gaze, my own experience. The first one was in December 1944. I was nine and Athens was in the turmoil of civil war â€” there were dead bodies everywhere and I remember my mother holding me by the hand as we walked through the city looking for my fatherâ€™s corpse. I remember looking for him on a plot of land full of dead bodies. We didnâ€™t find him. Then I remember as I was playing in the street one afternoon when my father returned. He was dressed in rags and I shouted to my mother, and she came out to meet him. There was a very deep and absolute emotion in this. There was nothing for supper, we had some thin soup, and we couldnâ€™t talk. That is the first sequence in â€˜Reconstructionâ€™, my first film.
â€œIn all these years, they are the only images I can say that are truly mine.â€™â€™ He stops himself, looking for a suitably philosophical rationale for this uncharacteristic confession. â€œMy earlier films were emotional in the second degree; now they are in the first degree,â€™â€™ he says.
Angelopoulosâ€™ motivation for so huge and risky a project so late in his career could not be more personal. He came up with the idea of the trilogy while watching his mother die. â€œBy the time I got to her bedside she couldnâ€™t speak, and I thought, this woman has experienced the whole century â€” she was born at the beginning and is dying at its end. She has seen its hopes and disasters and now it is too late for her to pass those on to me. I had just returned from Cannes with the Palme dâ€™Or for â€˜Eternity and a Dayâ€™, and it was not what I was expecting. I thought it might be a good idea to tell this story through a woman. Women more than men are tragic figures. My mother, for example, was Antigone at times or Hecuba other times. In her life she played different roles.â€™â€™ The second part of the trilogy â€” for which he has not yet found funding, despite winning a European Film award last month for â€˜The Weeping Meadowâ€™ â€” starts in the Soviet Union in 1953, on the day Stalin died, with a train taking home an international brigade of disillusioned activists who have lost faith with socialism.
â€œMy last film will be about thefuture, and our visionary relations with it,â€™â€™ he says. But he refuses to elaborate. He has a flight to Rome to catch. He is receiving another award, this time the Vittorio de Sica prize from the Italian government. I congratulate him but he looks at me as if Iâ€™m mocking him, suddenly pained. â€œPrizes are prizes, but I still need to tell that story. And being simple is the hardest thing.â€™â€™