The first movement in a projected triptych, Greek master Theo Angelopolous's most accessible film to date is tragedy on a grand-scale: Greece's traumatic, 20th-century history as seen through the experiences of young woman. Orphaned in 1919 by a Red Army rampage through the streets of Odessa, young Eleni is adopted by Spyros (Vassilis Kolovos) and his wife, two of the 40 fellow Russian Greeks refugees who settle on a barren estuary on the Gulf of Thessaloniki. As a young teenager, Eleni leaves the ochre-colored mud-brick settlement of "New Odessa" for a few months in order to recover from what her aunt (Thalia Argyriou) claims is a serious illness. In reality, Eleni has left to give birth to twin boys, both of whom are quietly adopted by a wealthy woman in Athens. Eleni returns to the village, and a few years later is betrothed to Spyros, now an elderly widower. On the morning of the wedding, however, Eleni elopes to Thessaloniki with Spyros' handsome son, Alexis (Nikos Poursanidis), whom she's loved since she was a child. The fugitive couple first take refuge in a theater that's become home to the city's homeless artists, and where they're befriended by Nikos (Giorgos Armenis), a fiddler who heads a rag-tag band of traveling musicians. When a heartbroken and vengeful Spyros tracks them down, Nikos directs Eleni and Alexis to a shambling whistle-stop outside of the city that will become Eleni's home for years to come. Impressed by Alexis' accordion skills, Nikos invites him to join his troupe, but Alexis is soon fielding a better offer from the a far more respectable band leader who's scheduled to tour the land of Alexis's dreams: America. But just when Eleni, who's been reunited with her two sons, thinks she's managed to put Spyros and her difficult past behind her, history overtakes her fragile family. As the Nazi threat begins to roll across Europe and the Greek fascist falange gains power, Nikos' alliance to the socialist Popular Front — and Elena's unflagging dedication to Nikos — puts them all in danger. One can't really say this magnificent film is a change pace for Angelopoulos: The tempo is still molto largo , the symbolism stark, and the characters are often artificially posed as if they were figures in a tableaux vivant. But there's an user-friendliness here that speaks to a desire to reach a more mainstream audience that might be unaware of the wounds Angelopoulos's beloved homeland has sustained over the past century. There are also moments of such breathtaking grace and artistry that you'd be forgiven for thinking you're watching the most beautiful movie ever made.
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