The Balkan War has inspired many films in the last few years, but none as portentous and pretentious as ULYSSES' GAZE. A film archivist's search for some long-lost cans of film drives the plot of this frustrating and uneven art-house epic.
"A" (Harvey Keitel), a filmmaker and historian, is visiting Albania to supervise a documentary about the Mannakis Brothers, two filmmakers from the area who directed their own documentaries about the Balkan people earlier in the century. "A" learns through his research that three reels of 1904
footage filmed by the Brothers is considered "lost," but actually may exist in a European archive.
A local archivist (Maia Morgenstern) helps "A" with his initial search by accompanying him on a trip to the Belgrave Film Archive. On the way, during a stop in Plovdiv, "A" reminsces about his family, who had once lived in the area but were forced to leave during WWII. He also parts from the
archivist, with whom he has had a brief, tortured affair. "A" travels the rest of the way to Belgrade, where a journalist-friend, Nikos (Yorgos Michalakopoulos), who is covering the war in Sarajevo, introduces him to Mr. Yovisitvista, the elderly keeper of the small, run-down archive. Mr.
Yovisitvista tells him that the person who now holds the missing reels is a cinematheque manager (Erland Josephson) in Sarajevo.
Despite the risk he takes in traveling through the war zone, "A" goes to Sarajevo to meet Levy. Before he arrives he has more disturbing dreams about his family, especially his mother (also Morgenstern), and the house in which he grew up. Once in Sarajevo, "A" eventually finds Levy, who takes him
to the bombed-out cinematheque and explains the problems he has encountered in developing the reels of film. During the filmmaker's stay in the city, however, Levy finally manages to develop the footage just before soldiers shoot and kill him and his family. "A" mourns for the Levy family and
other victims of war by watching the long-sought film fragments.
ULYSSES' GAZE cleverly "hooks" the viewer with the conundrum of whether or not the missing reels of pre-WWI Balkan footage can ever be found. Had director-writer Theo Angelopoulos stuck to his main story, he might have engaged his viewers throughout Harvey Keitel's obsessed historian's journey
into the "heart of darkness" of past and present wars. But Angelopoulos strains too hard to make thematic points about how war and totalitarianism invariably destroys art and artists. In a typically overextended sequence, the camera lingers over the broken pieces of a huge statue of Lenin for
several long minutes. The symbolic and allegorical references (to Ulysses and other works) have the unfortunate and ironic effect of dwarfing the human drama to the degree that even Keitel's pained and heartfelt cries in the final sequence become a hollow emotional gesture. Angelopoulos's
direction of the major women characters (all played by Maia Morgenstern) is especially weak.
Still, the celebrated filmmaker's sophisticated, self-referential style often makes ULYSSES' GAZE a visual treat. Angelopoulos creates an impressionistic tableaux (a la Fellini's AMARCORD) through seemingly endless traveling crane shots (photographed by Yorgos Arvanitis and Andreas Sinanos),
peculiar imagery (the "dead" mother riding the barge while dressed all in black is a haunting sight), and an imaginative--if theatrical--use of off-screen space (especially in the penultimate scene). Thanks primarily to Erland Josephson's presence, there are also some charming scenes set in the
cinematheque during the last hour, including a wise and witty use of a photo of Humphrey Bogart from the WWII film, TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT (1944).
But at three hours, ULYSSES' GAZE overstays its welcome and overemphasizes its metaphors. Modernist stylization has its place in narrative film, but in this case less would have meant much more. (Violence, nudity, sexual situations, adult situations, profanity.)
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- Released: 1995
- Rating: NR
- Review: The Balkan War has inspired many films in the last few years, but none as portentous and pretentious as ULYSSES' GAZE. A film archivist's search for some long-lost cans of film drives the plot of this frustrating and uneven art-house epic. "A" (Harvey Kei… (more)