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A Chapter in World Cinema: Ebbing Innocence in Theo Angelopoulos’ ‘Landscape in the Mist’

By Rituparna Borah

For better or for worse, this era foreshadows an explosion of images in future. A painting, a photograph, a movie hardly stirs our sense of wonder anymore; they have become as common a thing in our life as a saucepan in the kitchen. Still, questions of beauty, truth and goodness will prevail as long as we remain humans and, if needed, it’ll be through images that they will be carried forth. Image imitates what is out there, albeit through different perspectives; but again, what is out there is just a manifestation of some inner spirit, according to some philosophical thinking. In his book What is Art?, Tolstoy quotes Hegel: “…the beauty of nature is merely a reflection of the beauty proper to the spirit: the beautiful has only spiritual content. But the spiritual must manifest itself in a sensuous form.” This is what some images aspire to do: a sensual manifestation of the spiritual, like those in Theo Angelopoulos’ movie, Landscape in the Mist (1988).

At first glance, this movie is a search of two children for their father, who, according to their mother, stays in Germany. Their journey takes them across many places in contemporary Greece. Now and then they are accompanied by strangers; otherwise, they set forth alone, relying solely on a faith that they have a father.

As the opening credits end, in an obscure scene at night, we hear the brother and sister in a conversation off-screen:

“Sleep,” says the sister, who is elder among the two.

“When are we going to leave?” asks the brother.

“Just sleep.”

“Won’t you tell me our story? Another time?”

But the sister begins: “In the beginning there was Chaos and then the light was made and the light was separated from the darkness and the earth from the sea and then the rivers, the lakes and the mountains were formed and then the flowers, and the trees, the animals, the birds.”

“Mum’s here!” The girl warns. They hear sounds of approaching footsteps.

“You’ll never end this story; we are always interrupted,” the boy grumbles.

This story, in all its probability, is the story modernity strains to hide from us. The allusion is to something more consequential than a mere biblical reference to the Genesis, for the director, Theo Angelopoulos, almost certainly aims to illustrate through the movie how humanity, disillusioned, aspires to go back to where it began: to its roots. The father remains absent throughout the film. In fact, according to one relative of the children, there is no father at all. It’s indicated that the children are illegitimate and their mother made up a story of a father living in Germany. Still, the search of the children for a non-existent father, to all intents and purposes, is symbolic of humanity’s indefatigable belief that there is a root; there are ubiquitous and objective values, even in what seems like a valueless society.

The children boarding the train – elated at having finally found the courage to embark on this journey – is similar to our quests as curious and naive beings attempting to spread our wings and look forward to life. Seldom, however, in the course of the journey, we retain the same enthusiasm we start with and the faith to complete it. This is not the case with the children though. They are detained from travelling further owing to absence of passports, yet they continue on foot and sometimes by the same train, from different stations, by escaping the eyes of the authorities.

Five-year-old Alexandre cannot think of leaving the journey incomplete. He would even work to feed his mouth and his sister’s as well, but no adversity can withhold him from his search. He consistently feels that his father is out there in this world. His sister, wary of the adversities in an insensitive world, almost decides to go back but the boy won’t listen. The girl, Voula, is hardly a teenager; yet this world is in a hurry to show her what being a woman might mean: if one man deflowers her forcefully, another betrays her trust. Of course, in the latter case, the man – Orestes – never meant to hurt her; he was himself fighting his disillusionment inflicted by a world full of self-absorbed people.

Orestes is one of the characters from Angelopoulos’s masterpiece, The Travelling Players, which picturizes a theatre group moving from one place to another to stage a particular theatre. While there was a time when people were all hopped up about theatres and the theatre artists enjoyed a respectable position in society, today they are not even given a passing glance, let alone sponsors coming to their rescue.

This is only one of the many references to the apparent degeneration of values in society. Angelopoulos leaves the film open-ended; whether the children reach Germany or not is not known. In his concern we see the influences of directors like Antonioni and Kieslowski: going beyond the political, but through the political. However, the scene where the two children move through a stupefied crowd during the first snowfall and another where Orestes and the children witness the statue of a broken fist being carried away from the ocean by a helicopter are undoubtedly and delightfully Felliniesque!

Snowfall Scene

Although a beautiful movie, at parts the images are unsympathetically cold. Without Eleni Karaindrou’s poignant music, through which a viewer relates to a picture, the film is likely to lose the warmth. It is, therefore, this music that infuses life to the cold colour temperature throughout the film and completes it. As for performance, each actor’s contribution is equally laudable: be it an expressionless Voula (Tania Palaiologou), an enervated-but-hopeful Orestes (Stratos Tzortzoglou), the perverted truck driver (Vassilis Kolovos), or the enfeebled elderly theatre persons by the ocean, narrating their Second World War experiences into thin air. Yet, it is the five-year-old, Alexandre (Michalis Zeke), who’s sure to override the audience’s expectations. It is through his innocence we look into the entire spectre: his heart-wrenching sobs as the entrapped donkey freezes to death, while in the background people celebrate a couple’s marriage; his animated face when he listens to the violinist’s moving music, forgetting for a moment that he must work to buy the sandwiches; and seen through his eyes, it is not just theatre attire but a dream itself that the theatre artists sell in despair, yet no one wishes to buy it, or even acknowledge it for its value.

Landscape in the Mist is a yarn woven by exploring the ingenuous nature of children, their view of the world and their unbelievable courage to face it, through slow motions and long takes, dipped in sublime poetry that tells us our own story, echoes our own questions to ourselves. Sometimes, tired of all the pomp and show, most of us find ourselves waking up to a realization that something is missing and yet, most of the time, we are not brave enough to cross a river in stark darkness of the night, nor venture to unknown horizons, nor see the evergreen tree and find joy in reaching our roots.

The movie won’t tire any viewer, I can assure that, but it’ll definitely perplex everyone. This is because it doesn’t dither to insert moments which are disconnected and yet conspicuously summons those trifle yet facetious moments of our life to which we usually do not have viewers: like the little fight on the road before the marriage takes place; the way we gawk at a cock when it struts through the waiting lobby of the train station, as if it owns the entire space. The indulgence, however, most assuredly rests in our ability to accommodate the search the protagonists start: venture on those misty roads during savage winters in search of our origin.

Rituparna Borah is an amateur farmer, currently involved in research for her upcoming entrepreneurial project. Upon obtaining her MA in Sociology from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, she decided to pursue her research independently in the areas of social ecology, contemporary social theory and world cinema. Her musings and the links to her blogs can be found at Halftones. She tweets at: @rituparna_borah

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