Friday, November 18, 2022

Angelopoulos’s The Dust of Time

Even for Greek Communists exiled after the Civil War, the USSR was a cold, inhospitable place to live. The mother of Greek-American filmmaker “A” was eventually sentenced to a Siberian gulag and his father was deported, yet somehow, they still managed to find each other again. Their story inspired A’s film within the film, but memory is a tricky thing and so is the narrative approach in Theo Angelopoulos’s The Dust of Time, which screens as part of the UCLA Library Film & TV Archive’s Angelopoulos retrospective, Landscape of Time.

A's latest film is based on the letters his mother Eleni wrote to his father Spyros, while she was banished to a Siberian gulag. Even though he is filming in the illustrious Cinecetta studio in Italy, he is distracted by personal problems, mostly those generated by his disturbed daughter, also named Eleni. It appears she ran away from home, but on the plus side, he finds one of his mother’s missing letters in her room.

Flashing back to early 1950s Temirtau in Kazakhstan, where the Greek exiles had set up their own Soviet style colony, A’s parents are briefly reunited. He had assumed the identity of a dead comrade to sneak her out, but they are discovered by the other Communists. Ironically, Eleni would then spend decades with their torch-carrying Jewish family-friend, Jacob, who would become a Refusenik during his long tenure in the gulag with her.

Angelopoulos’s temporal shifts can be especially confusing, because of the way he blends the time periods in the transitional scenes, with A appearing in the past, or his youthful parents seemingly walking through the present (circa Y2K New Year’s Eve), but that also gives the film a rather striking sense of un-reality.
Dust of Time also features a gorgeous score composed by the late Angelopoulos’s regular collaborator, Eleni Karaindrou. The “Dance Theme,” heard performed by a full orchestra in a recording session for A’s film and as a piano solo performed by Spyros, is wonderfully melancholy and nostalgic-sounding.

is a lovely film to look at and listen to, but it still manages to capture the bleakness of the Soviet Communism—rather surprisingly so, given the general ideological tenor of contemporary Greek art house cinema. With wide, wide-swept shots of the mean, Brutalist gulag buildings and the icy surrounding tundra, Angelopoulos and cinematographer Andreas Sinanos vividly evoke the loneliness of Siberian exile. The scene of Jacob translating in a storeroom full of Stalin statues and paintings, hastily withdrawn from public display in the early days of the Khrushchev thaw, is also wonderfully surreal.

The late great Bruno Ganz gave one of the best performances of his accomplished career as the tragically friend-zoned Jacob. Irene Jacob also shows tremendous range portraying both the youthful-gulag-bound and grandmotherly Eleni. Of course, Willem Dafoe broods dependably as “A”—after the fifth or sixth time you write out “Angelopoulos,” you start to appreciate the brevity of his one-initial name (never actually heard in the film itself).

Dust of Time is maybe a little too over-stuffed with ideas. There are elements, like the dawning of the new millennium and a bizarre crime committed at A’s hotel that seem to hold additional meanings, but they remain rather obscure. Yet, since Angelopoulos was struck and ultimately killed crossing the road while filming what would have been the third film in his Greek historical trilogy (which remains unfinished), it is maybe just as well he crammed as much as he could into Dust. Still, with a running time just over two hours, it is more manageable than many of his later films.

This is a great example of how well Karaindrou’s music complimented Angelopoulos’s visions.
Dust also features nice work from Dafoe, Jacob, Ganz, and Michel Piccoli (as Spyros), so it is rather baffling why it remains so under-screened and under-distributed in America. Recommended for sensitive and adventurous viewers, The Dust of Time screens Sunday (11/20) at the Billy Wilder Theater.