There is a phrase that I came up with to describe when critics, especially of film, write reviews or essays about a film they claim to have seen yet feel no obligation to show any fealty to the images and actions depicted onscreen, and it is called critical cribbing. The most recent example of it that has proliferated — at least in a work of a director worth arguing over — is in Theo Angelopoulos’s last completed film, before his accidental death earlier this year, 2008’s Trilogy: The Dust Of Time, the second of a now never to be completed tercet of films on existence and the Greek Experience of the 20th Century. In looking over the sparse number of reviews online (Rotten Tomatoes’ link for the film even references a documentary on Dust, not this film!) there is a noxious meme that is repeated, and likely started from Angelopoulos’s own PR for the film, since it appears on the film’s website. Here it is:
A., an American film director, of Greek descent, returns to the studios in Rome in order to continue shooting a film he had interrupted for some unknown reason. The film is the story of the love of a woman, his mother, for the two men she loved to the very end and who loved her to the very end. The characters in the film lose each other and find each other again, seeking each other in a journey in space, time and the great events of the last half of the 20th century in Siberia, North Kazakhstan, Italy, Germany, America. From the death of Stalin, the Watergate scandal and Vietnam to the fall of the Berlin wall, the new era and the traumatic refutation of the dream of a better world at the turn of the century. As though in a dream, A. recalls people and events in the past and painfully relives them in the present. In a deserted Berlin at the dawn of the 21st century, the snow falls silently on time past and time passing, on the universe.
Can you see it? As in such films as Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Blow-Up” and Alain Resnais’s “Last Year at Marienbad,” a nameless character, Willem Dafoe’s film director, is accorded a name or initial that is NEVER mentioned in the film’s actual diegesis. Why Angelopoulos would, himself, propound such nonsense is frustrating, to say the least. But, a quick search of reviews finds the same memes and phrases repeated with little variance. This is not criticism but shameless shilling and blatant promotion.
That stated, this bit of critical cribbing is not the most frustrating thing about this film, which had the potential to be as great a film as its predecessor in the trilogy, “Trilogy: The Weeping Meadow,” which was a film that bordered the fringes of self-negation, as its characters suffered greatly, and we got to know them deeply and intimately through their suffering. Trilogy: The Dust Of Time allows us no such entry into these characters’ suffering. Angelopoulos lets us experience pain with his characters in the prior film, so they earn our emotional investment. In this film he expects us to grant it to the characters as they mope and moan through anomic scenes that, while individually well wrought, shot, and acted, never fit together. It just does not work, and, even the later scenes do not earn our emotions, for they just jumble together a cascade of suffering that we never really see. Yes, there are separations and presumed hardships, as different characters end up in gulags, or in exile, but we only see the brief moments of meeting and reconciliation. Far too much is left blank. This is the rare film that needed to be significantly longer than its almost exactly two hour running time. Three to three and a half hours were needed.
But that’s assuming that the screenplay was the film’s only problem; it’s not. The film’s acting was slipshod. Dafoe, as the director, whose life is mainly set in the film’s pre-Y2K present of 1999, is almost as vacant and superfluous as the character portrayed by Sean Penn in Terrence Malick’s recent “The Tree of Life.” Like Penn’s character, Dafoe’s is basically a bookend character. We see him working a bit on his film, haggling with his ex-lover, Helga (Christiane Paul), mostly about their daughter, named Eleni — a prototypical spoiled brat, whose place in the film is utterly pointless, save to elicit reactions from her grandmother, Dafoe’s mother, also called Eleni (Irene Jacob). The problem is that Jacob (so luminous and sexy in Krzysztof Kieslowski’s “Three Colors: Red” and “The Double Life of Veronique”) is equally attractive — in fact, bizarrely sexy, even with grayed hair. It’s a bit absurd to see this thin, attractive woman trying to be passed off as the mother of Dafoe, who is a decade or more older than her. They look like they should be lovers. Jacob does not really do a bad acting job as much as she is poorly cast and utterly unconvincing while playing off her character’s husband, Spyros (Michel Piccoli) — Dafoe’s character’s father, and a jealous former lover, from the gulags, named Jacob (Bruno Ganz). Bizarrely, Jacob is seen, in the later years of the film, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, constantly dogging Eleni, right under her husband’s nose, and neither Spyros nor Eleni seem to mind. Yes, we learn that Jacob spent more time with Eleni than did Spyros, all the years they were in the gulags, but Eleni makes it clear that she will return to Spyros and her son upon release, and this is where Jacob loses it. It also is not realistic that Spyros would tolerate another man’s obvious sexual pursuit of his wife. However, failing to sway her back to him, and depressed after a trip to the death camp that claimed his family members, Jacob commits suicide by jumping off a boat and into a cold river. It’s an utterly pointless scene, though, for we have no concern for this character, given that he is wailing and moping through the whole film, we only hear of his privations, and Ganz tends to chew scenery when onscreen. In fact, the only scene of any power he is in is in one seemingly utterly disconnected from the main narrative, and that is being assigned as a translator, in the gulag, between a Russian speaking gulag manager and an East German buyer of an old organ the gulag wants to sell off, along with old statues of Stalin that have been removed, due to the late 1950s policy of De-Stalinization. Taken apart from the film, it’s well wrought, acted, directed, shot, and loaded with a poesy all its own. But, it simply has no connection to what comes before nor after in the film.
But, there are other scenes just as well crafted and out of place. Two that stick with me are an extended pan in and up a snowy and dreary cliffside staircase, just outside a gulag camp, in Siberia, in winter. We see dozens of prisoners slowly trudging up the stairs, their gaits and body language saying all one needs to know of their plights. It’s a scene straight from a Bela Tarr film, and is equally effective. But, again, nothing comes of it. The other scene that, by itself is filled with power, is when Stalin dies in 1953, and peasants — including Greek Communists living in exile and planning another war — gather in front of a statue of Stalin, to hear the news of the great man’s death. The soldiers all stand and salute, but the peasants just stand, bemused. Then, slowly, the mass of hundreds of people in the town square slowly break apart, until the last man in place, also turns to leave. Again, highly poetic and evocative of a loss, to some, and a shoulder shrug to most, as the peasants know the eventual replacement could be worse. But, this scene, unlike the two others described, is not disconnected, for we’ve seen Eleni meet up with Spyros, who has hunted her down, we learn, since the Greek Communists lost the post-World War Two Civil War. Instead of fleeing, once the trolley empties to let the townsfolk come and listen to the announcement of Stalin’s death, the two have sex, and Dafoe’s character is conceived. Incidentally, having been conceived in late March of 1953, his character was born in late ’53 or early ’54, meaning he’s in his mid forties by the film’s present of 1999, not in his mid-fifties, as many other reviews erroneously repeat. My belief is since so few “name” critics, in the U.S. saw this film, the lesser online critics are left with having to actually sort out the film without looking over what the big name critics, who get to see films first, are saying. Nonetheless, why the two would have sex, get caught, have Eleni sent to a gulag and Spyros deported, is an unfortunate example of the Lowest Common Denominator use of the Dumbest Possible Action trope that infects so many Hollywood films. That Angelopoulos succumbs to this ill is disappointing. Yet another disappointment in Trilogy: The Dust of Time, which is not bad, but relative to his other masterworks, is not good, is the suggestion that this might be a film within a film, like “Stardust Memories.” It’s not, even though a few online critics claim this by suggesting that some scenes in the film are re-enactments of earlier scenes that occur within the diegetic reality of the film. They do not exist. All we get are a few scenes of Dafoe in a studio, editing or working on the soundtrack. The supposed scenes that are from the Dafoe character’s film are clearly real because the supposed “Eleni character” is Irene Jacob, not another actress, and clearly Dafoe is not employing his character’s own mother, not hired a perfect doppelganger. This is just more critical cribbing from rudderless online critics lacking big name sources from whom to pilfer information and ideas from.
Other than the acting, the rest of the technical aspects of the film were fine: The end scene, after Jacob and Eleni die, where Spyros and his granddaughter walk out into a snowy urban scene, is beautiful, but, again, bereft of real emotion, for these two characters have barely been onscreen all film, and in the few scenes they are in, barely register concern or emotion. And none of the scenes in this film, as lovely as they are, achieve the power of similar scenes in earlier Angelopoulos films, partly due to the lack in other areas, but mostly due to the anomy this film inhabits and inflicts in its viewers. Cinematographer Andreas Sinanos does his usual good work, and the film is radiant, in its 1.85:1 aspect ratio, but the best part of the film is the scoring by Eleni Karaindrou, which is unfortunately never put to the best possible use, due to the visuals that Angelopoulos and editors Yannis Tsitsopoulos and Giorgos Chelidonides pair it with. Also, this film has substantially more shorter takes than most of Angelopoulos’s canon, and far fewer longer ones. The script, by Angelopoulos, with some help, apparently, from Tonino Guerra and Petros Markaris, is not up to the usual standards of these men. The DVD, by Artificial Eye, has no extra features, and is in a Region 2 format, so North American viewers will need a codeless DVD player. Languages used are English, Russian, German, and Greek, with subtitling, as necessary.
Overall, Trilogy: The Dust of Time has glimpses of what made Theo Angelopoulos one of the all time greats of cinema, but not enough to make this merely solid, but frustrating, film, great. It is not a bad film, like the later films of other cinematic greats like Ingmar Bergman (“Saraband”) nor Federico Fellini (“Intervista”), but it definitely is an “old master’s film,” in the worst possible, and most self indulgent ways. Still, for its moments and its technical skills, it should be seen. More importantly, though, it should have been better. Much better.