THE TRAVELLING PLAYERS (Theodoros Angelopoulos, 1975)

Members of the nouvelle vague had started out as film critics; in the 1970s another film critic, and before that a lawyer, emerged as a new visionary in world cinema: Greece’s premier film artist, Theodoros Angelopoulos. Angelopoulos began developing the style—patient, soulful, analytical, political, and charged with profound, unsentimental emotion—which has become, in fact, the signature style of European filmmaking. O Thiasos is a tremendous achievement, a detailed political analysis of a brace of Greek history, including the Greek Civil War, spun around the experience—out of Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1956)—of an itinerant acting troupe. These observers of the crises in their midst by fits and starts undergo a process of political understanding and radicalization once their enclosed self-definition as troupe yields to a wider national definition.
     Much of the action revolves around the interplay between the reality that troupe members find themselves in, including homegrown fascism, Nazi occupation, liberation and Allied occupation, and a popular 19th-century play that the troupe keeps trying to perform, Golfo, the Shepherdess. It is an often tragic interplay, a meditation on the cost of being Greek in the years 1939-1952, beginning with a mid-point in the dictatorship of General Ioannis Metaxas, and proceeding through the dark days of civil war between government troops and Communist guerrillas. Indeed, troupe members recall characters in the ancient Greek trilogy by Æschylus, the Oresteia. Angelopoulos’s film, then, is a fractious portrait of Greek history and a national spiritual epic, for an impetus towards embracing a national identity survives and transcends the fractiousness. The intermittent performances of the play, with their shifted role assignments, accumulate into a metaphor for this Greek spirit.
     Slow, solemn, cumulatively powerful, the film justifies the adjective so often applied to Angelopoulos’s work: hypnotic.

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