Judge Joe Armenio gets misty just holding your hand.
"Dear father, how far away you are!"
Landscape in the Mist (1988) is the only film by the Greek director Theo Angelopoulos (born 1935) to get a theatrical release in the United States; this is not altogether surprising, since Angelopoulos is best known for his highly allusive, cerebral, and deliberate style, and American moviegoers have never been known to show an intense interest in any of those qualities. Unfortunately, this means that most Americans (including this one) have never seen an Angelopoulos film that way it was intended to be seen: in a nice print on a big screen. It's inevitable that no home video could fully capture the grandeur of an Angelopoulos composition, but a loving and meticulous DVD presentation could certainly approximate it. Unfortunately, this New Yorker release of Landscape is neither meticulous or loving, giving us a drab, lifeless transfer and a total lack of extras (under "Special Features" on the DVD case they list "Scene Selections." Yeah, thanks.).
Facts of the Case
Landscape in the Mist begins with pubescent Voula (Tania Paliaologou) and five-ish Alexander (Michalis Zeke) wandering through a train station via a virtuoso tracking shot and watching a train zoom past; they are summoning the courage to hop the train and leave Greece for Germany, where their mother has told them that their father lives. Eventually they do hop the train, although we learn that the German father of whom their mother spoke may not exist. On their travels, they meet a soulful actor named Orestes (Stratos Tzortzoglou) and a brusque truck driver (Vassilis Kolovos).
The way in which Angelopoulos constructs a suspenseful mystery story (Who is the kids' father? Will they find him?) without seeming to care about its development or resolution recalls Michelangelo Antonioni (L'Avventura is the most famous example, and one could see the rest of that Italian master's career as a variation on his breakthrough film). Also Antonioni-esque (say that three times fast) is Angelopoulos's compositional style, which sets his characters to wander among landscapes which serve to symbolize their internal states (calling L'Avventura a film about rocks, L'Eclisse a film about the stock exchange, and The Passenger a film about the desert would probably be more descriptive than referring to any of their characters).
Landscape in the Mist, then, is a film about factories and mud, as Voula and Alexander roam through various bureaucratic and industrial wastelands, searching for something primal (the father) through the rubble to which human getting and spending has reduced the world. Most of the film's emotional moments come as the result of the sudden and overwhelming intrusion (for good or bad) of the natural word into the life of modern numbed and downtrodden mankind: Voula and Alexander are allowed to escape the police station where they are being held, when all of the functionaries are entranced by an unexpected snowfall; Alexander weeps at the sight of a dying horse, and Voula is raped by a trucker who has picked them up, and in the aftermath, she gazes with inscrutable wonder at the blood on her hand. Nature is marginalized and diminished, but remains the deepest of mysteries and an inexhaustible source of awe. One could say the same of Art, represented by Orestes' troupe of actors, so neglected that they idly travel the countryside, unwanted, performing only for the sea.
Voula's rape is also the most dramatic illustration of Angelopoulos's attitude toward character: the act itself takes place behind a curtain, there are no theatrics in the aftermath, as the girl's reaction remains inscrutable and it is not mentioned for the rest of the film. The director isn't concerned with individual psychology, with what they call in Screenwriting 101 "character development." At important moments, his compositions lock up and human figures become frozen objects, symbols rather than characters. Voula, like any character, is unknown and unknowable; Angelopoulos is more concerned with human beings in the abstract, their mystical quests, and relationship to the natural world. All of this also suggests Antonioni, although I think the comparison should probably end there: Angelopoulos is more straightforwardly emotional than Antonioni would ever allow himself to be (Eleni Karaindrou's poignant music being the most obvious example; Angelopoulos's characters also seem openly wounded rather than numb, like Antonioni's).
Art-film types tend to value the long take, the willingness of a director to let a scene play out with a minimum of cutting. This is a philosophy that Angelopoulos has often taken to a logical extreme: his 1975 film The Travelling Players is four hours long and contains fewer than a hundred shots. Landscape in the Mist is not quite as languorous, but still maintains a stately rhythm that will be either hypnotic or excruciating, depending on taste. My own reaction is mixed: I admire the way in which Angelopoulos allows deep feeling to develop without the use of conventional theatrics, as well as the grace of his camera movements, and the formal power and thematic richness of his compositions, but the whole enterprise has a sort a humorless grandiloquence that's a little wearing. Orestes, with his wounded-puppy looks and self-pityingly philosophical pronouncements, seems at times a parody of the Distraught Romantic, and the nagging feeling emerges that truly great art wouldn't be trying quite so hard to convince us of its greatness.
Still, I don't really trust my reaction, because of the (to use a technical term) crappiness of New Yorker's DVD release. Colors are drab, faded, and flabby. This is troubling for any film, but a disaster for the work of a director like Angelopoulos who relies so heavily on the power of his images. (At first, the full-screen transfer looks kind of suspicious, too, but apparently the film's original aspect ratio was 1.33:1.) Perhaps if I ever see the film in more felicitous circumstances, my gripes will seem like quibbles and I will be duly knocked out. If that happens, I will let my faithful readers (Hi, Mom!) know. And yes, as I mentioned earlier, this DVD has absolutely zilch for extras. No booklet essay, no trailer, no formless behind-the-scenes footage, no enigmatic interview with the surly director, not even one of those useless text biographies.
I was going to write the standard paragraph here about how this release is pretty subpar but it's still good to have some of the director's work available, but I don't really feel like being that generous. New Yorker's sitting on a treasure trove of great cinema, and they treat it in irritatingly haphazard fashion; there's no telling which releases will feature decent transfers and intelligent extras, and which will look lousy and send you running to the Internet for context. Boo, hiss, I say.
Theo Angelopoulos gets an extra cookie, but New Yorker is sent to its room without dessert.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Yorker Films
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