The revered Greek filmmaker Theo Angelopoulos died today after being hit by a motorcycle while walking across the street. The 76-year-old director was working on what was to be his last film, The Other Sea, the third in a trilogy (2004’s The Weeping Meadow and 2009’s The Dust Of Time are the others) that grappled with themes of time. No word yet on how far along Angelopoulos was in the filming or whether it can be completed posthumously.
Known for their long takes and painterly compositions, Angelopoulos’ films posed not only a significant formal challenge for viewers, but they were also dense in symbolism and historical allusion. Needless to say, they didn’t make great inroads beyond hardcore cinephile circles in the U.S., but he was a major figure on the festival circuit and the most celebrated Greek filmmaker of his time. His breakthrough film, the four-hour 1974 epic The Travelling Players, epitomized the difficulties and rewards of Angelopoulos’ best work. Composed of just 80 shots, each a meticulous tableau with subtle camera movement, the film cannot be fully comprehended without an understanding of modern Greek history and Aeschylus’ Oresteia tragedies. And yet it’s possible to be awed by it without fully comprehending it: Made under the shadow of a military dictatorship, the film follows an acting troupe across a country ravaged by civil war, and if some of the details are hard to decipher, Angelopoulos’ political message and magisterial images come through powerfully.
In the late ‘80s and ‘90s, Angelopoulos continued to be a force in international cinema, collecting awards so routinely that he famously chided the Cannes jury for giving his 1995 film Ulysses’ Gaze—his Homeric epic about a filmmaker (Harvey Keitel) who journeys across Eastern Europe—the Grand Jury Prize (second place, essentially) instead of the Palme D’Or. But Cannes dutifully awarded him the Palme for his next effort, 1998’s superb Eternity And A Day, another personal epic with Bruno Ganz serving as the director’s surrogate this time around. Casting Ganz as a terminally ill author who spends his last days wandering the Greek countryside naturally recalls Ganz’s turn as an angel in Wim Wenders’ Wings Of Desire, and his odyssey is similarly metaphysical, including an encounter with an 18th century poet and a young Albanian boy he rescues from a black-market adoption ring. Like most of Angelopoulos’ films, Eternity And A Day polarized American critics, but his austerity, however out of step with the times, yielded payoffs of overwhelming beauty. It’s a shame his career, so close to its conclusion, couldn’t have ended on his terms.