1995, NR, 180 min. Directed by Theo Angelopoulos. Starring Harvey Keitel, Maia Morgenstern, Giorgos Michalakopolous.
REVIEWED By Russell Smith, Fri., June 13, 1997
Ulysses' Gaze is one of those films that appeals to what might be called art-movie machismo: Hey buddy, how long can you stare at images of silently drifting fog banks, pretending to be overwhelmed by the massive sense of weltschmerz they impart? I just clocked three solid hours with this baby! Okay -- so that's a cheap shot that misrepresents the value and meaning of Greek director Angelopoulos' ambitious 180-minute work. Still, as easy as it is to be impressed by this epic meditation on the past's endless reverberation with the present, it's just as hard to imagine anyone really enjoying it. Harvey Keitel, again proving his willingness to make a stretch, stars as an unnamed Greek-born American movie director who's returned to Europe to track down a lost work by the seminal Greek filmmakers Miltos and Yannakis Manakis. This man, who apparently represents Angelopoulos himself, takes a meandering journey from Greece to Sarajevo, touching base often with the myth of Ulysses' voyage home from Troy. Along the way, he encounters various women -- all played by striking, alabaster-skinned Maia Morgenstern -- as lovers, guides, and muses. Often, he finds long-dead figures from the history of his own family and native land overtaking him, and he loses the ability to distinguish between past and present. These are potentially fascinating premises and Angelopoulos, a bona fide visionary, often fills the screen with images of stunning mystery and power: (a makeshift movie theatre flickering in a bombed-out building; a jerky 90-year-old film clip of medieval-looking Balkan villagers at work. But more often, Ulysses' Gaze comes off like a Spot That Symbol! parlor game for literature and film grad students. There's enough fog to approximate the feel of a 1975 Queen concert. Crowds huddled under identical black umbrellas. Landscape-obscuring snow. A film historian who operates out of an insane asylum. Then there's the dialogue: speechy, stilted, portentous and always intoned rather than spoken to enhance its aura of profundity. Not even Keitel's intuitive genius for line-reading can salvage it. On one level, it's wrong to peremptorily dismiss a work of such reach and earnestness. Underneath all the ponderous bullshit in Ulysses' Gaze, there's an undeniable intelligence at work, and a hungry, questing spirit, too. Angelopoulos is a real artist who simply lacks the gifts of subtlety and understatement. At this point, journalistic fairness compels me to note that this film won a Special Jury Prize at Cannes. However, I strongly suspect that those judges were cowed more than won over. We don't have to make the same mistake.