'The Weeping Meadow' Film Review
What do you call someone who makes the same mistake over and over again, each time expecting different results and instead finding the same disappointment? Some might call him a positive thinker, hopeful and persistent like a boy who learns to ride a bicycle by falling off it a hundred times until he finally manages to keep his balance. Others might say he is in a rut and living life mechanically. I suppose it depends on how you look at life. Is there a purpose? Are we supposed
to make the same mistakes over and over again until we get it, like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day? Or at some point do you come to the realization that there is nothing to get and that doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results is insanity?
I have seen all the Theo Angelopoulos films. Each one has been described as a masterpiece by various reviewers. And even though each film has left me feeling hoodwinked, when a new one comes out and the reviews again praise it, I watch it, hoping that maybe this time I will get it. This time the powerful images will coalesce into something resembling a watchable movie. They never do.
In a way taking potshots at Angelopoulos is too easy, like shooting spitballs at the fat kid who sits in front of you in class with the big head. Unless you know the childlike dramatic pretensions of the Greek male ego you might believe that what you are watching is art and not a collection of images woven together with the thin-est of threads, meant to glorify the filmmaker rather than tell an actual story that might get people thinking about life. Angelopoulos like many
Greek artists basks in the image of himself as the misunderstood genius, the true artist that only those who understand art can appreciate, who is crucified by the masses but will in the end find redemption and resurrection when we enter a more enlightened age. Yet when he attempts to make a film that is accessible to us common people he fails miserably and what good is a messiah that speaks in gibberish instead of parables?
I have seen reviews that praise Angelopoulos who write that the way to appreciate him is to look at his films as a painting, with patience, and let the meaning come to you. It is true that the man goes through great lengths to create a scene that will stick in your mind for days and weeks and even years. But they are scenes that follow a loose script where characters give speeches rather than speak to each other, and camera shots are held for minutes longer than the few seconds
they deserve. You end up with a three hour move and a half hour of story.
Of course when my local video store went out of business and they had a sale of all their DVDs I knew that I would have the Greek section pretty much all to myself and was able to buy all three of them. Right across the top of the box in letters bigger than the title of The Weeping Meadow was written "A MASTERPIECE". (By Nick Roddick of Sight and Sound whoever he is). If that was not enough, in just as large type was written "A STUNNER".
And in smaller letters "A voluptuously beautiful meditation on love, family, fate" by no less than Jan Stuart of Newsday. Ken Fox of TV Guide wrote "Moments of such breathtaking grace and artistry that you'd be forgiven for thinking you are watching the most BEAUTIFUL movie ever made." So if I sit through the 163 minutes and think it is beautiful at least I can get forgiveness out of it, and isn't that what life is for? So I bought it and took it home for that day when I
either ran out of movies or I could convince Andrea to give Greece's resident film master one last chance at redemption.
The opening scene looks promising. A group of well dressed people appear as if they have walked out of the sea. They are Greek refugees from Odessa who have been chased out by the Bolsheviks. The Greek authorities in Thessaloniki have given them this land by the river on a giant flood plain to start a village, which right away rings alarm bells in anyone who knows what a flood plain is. These people who are obviously city dwellers don't. The problem is that
the narrator is describing what we are seeing in the way that a scene is described in a play. In fact it sounds like Angelopoulos just took the description of the scene that he wanted his set designers to create and read it, as it was written. From there we are introduced to the fact that there is a little girl named Eleni who they happened to find along the way and adopt, and a boy named Alexis, who is sort of her step-brother and best friend. But within five minutes he has gotten her pregnant, they have
whisked her off to Thessaloniki to secretly give birth to twins when she is around thirteen, and then when she is of marrying age, forced to marry her stepfather who is around sixty years old. She disappears from the wedding one moment after saying "I do" and runs away with Alexis to Thessaloniki, where they are pursued by her 'husband' who has blamed her and his son for humiliating him and ruining his life. When the old man finally finds them at a masquerade ball where Alexis is playing
accordion with the band, he dances with Eleni and then dies of a heart attack. This causes them to go back to the village to bring his body where they are greeted with hostility by the entire village who apparently believe it is more OK for a sixty year old man to marry his teenage stepdaughter than it is for her to run away with her stepbrother. In a scene that must have had PETA members scrambling for their iphones, they find the father's entire flock of sheep hanging from the tree in front of
the big house they all had lived in, the only tree in the entire village, which is odd in itself. It is a chilling image though. Unforgettable. But that is what Angelopoulos is good at. That night after the neighbors have thrown rocks through all their windows, the river rises and the village is under water. This gives Angelopoulos an opportunity for some really great scenes of the people leaving their flooded homes by boat like hurricane Katrina. The rest of the movie follows Eleni and Alexis and the twins
who have been magically reunited with their parents, as they pass through thirty years of Greek history and one personal tragedy after another until you just want the movie to end so you can go to bed.
There is no denying that the images in the movie are a feast for the eyes. The funeral procession on a raft, the arrival of the ship that will take Alexis to America, the villages, both of which were built from scratch for the film, and the scenes where the old locomotive is the star, had me mesmerized. But at the same time it had me feeling that it was a shame there was not a real movie holding them all together.
The dialogue was simplistic and exasperating. If they were not giving speeches they were endlessly repeating the same sentences over and over until I lost all compassion for the characters and just wanted to scream "Shut up already". I felt like I was in Greek class learning helpful phrases by repetition. "Guard". "I have no water". "I have no soap". "I have no paper to write my children". "I was arrested for harboring
an insurgent". These repeated so many times that they are now part of my Greek vocabulary.
But let's get to the creation of the villages which according to Angelopoulos was half the budget. The first village they built on Lake Kerkini which is dry for three months. Then when the rains came the lake filled up, the village flooded and they filmed it. Very good plan. Very effective and you have to give him credit for actually doing something in real life that most directors might do with digital editing. The second village was supposed to be on the
outskirts of Thessaloniki. They probably could have found a suitable village somewhere in Greece if they looked hard enough but what the heck. If you are building one village why not build two? This is the problem I have with Angelopoulos. You have this filmmaker who is perceived as the ambassador of Greek film to the rest of the world, who gets so much money that he can build two entire villages and make a period piece that looks totally authentic. On the other hand you have an army of young filmmakers
who can't get even one cent from the Greek government and are creating better films, with more meaning, more heart, more emotion with a handful of euros and the help of a lot of friends. I have to ask this question. Could Theo Angelopoulos make a watch-able movie if he did not have the money to create the images his films are so reliant upon to get the favorable reviews that grace the DVD covers? Could he make a good low budget film like for instance Renos Harilambides does?
To me there are two types of people who are Angelopoulos fans. The first is the kind of person who likes to look at the pictures in National Geographic but never reads the articles. They like images and don't want to be burdened with things like plot and believable dialogue. The other is the kind of film critic who sees film criticism as art, and uses it to give himself a sense of superiority over the rest of us who merely like good movies. OK. You can give Angelopoulos
a lot of credit for creating a scene that takes your breath away. He has the vision and the money to do it. If creating a sense of awe in a handful of people is what makes him happy then more power to him. But in my humble opinion Angelopoulos does more damage to Greek film than good. If Greek film is to get any international respect, the money should be spread more fairly, what little money there is. There are lots of Greek movies that deserve to be seen that aren't because Angelopoulos has a monopoly
on what little attention is paid to Greek filmmakers.
So should you rent this film? Sure. It won't teach you much about Greek history unless you already know it. If that is your purpose you will be happier renting Rembetiko which does a much better job at recreating history, looks as authentic, has better characters, believable dialogue and GREAT music. But you should rent it so you can write to me and tell me if I am wrong in my appraisal about Angelopoulos. Maybe I am just not smart enough to get it. Or maybe
there is no it to get. I want to like the guy. I would not keep renting his movies if I didn't. I would love to discover that he is a genius and I finally understand his movies. Because that would mean that I am smart enough to understand them, like being able to talk about Einstein's relativity, Hawkin's black holes or Mozart's music instead of putting down Angelopoulos because his movies are long and kinda pretentious. Remember how Mozart felt in Amadeus when the king told him his
music had "too many notes"? Maybe that is how Angelopoulos feels when people tell him his films are too long. But in his case there are not enough notes and too much, how shall I put this? Wallpaper?