The Travelling Players

1975, Movie, NR, 230 mins

Review

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An explicitly leftist allegory of modern Greece from 1939-52, Theo Angelopoulous's THE TRAVELLING PLAYERS focuses on the plight of a group of itinerant performers whose fate is linked to the political events that dominated Greece in those years: the Metaxas dictatorship, the Italian invasion and subsequent German occupation, a civil war that can be seen as the first battle of the Cold War, and subsequent right-wing regimes. It is also a re-working of Aeschylus's Orestia, from which Angelopoulous takes the names of his characters as well as themes of sexual betrayal and murder. All of this in a film that runs nearly four hours, marked by the director's trademark long takes (the entire film consists of approximately 80 shots) and a camera far too prone to slow 360 degree pans.

The film opens in 1939 with a hammer banging on the stage, the traditional announcement that a performance is about to begin. The troupe of players walk from the train station of a small town to their new lodging at a local inn. Through the windows of the inn, we see a unit of the local fascist-style militia. One of the actors, Aegisthus (Vangelos Kazan) is a fascist sympathizer, and openly challenges his left-wing colleagues. Aegisthus is having an affair with Clytaemnestra (Aliki Georgouli), the wife of the troupe's director, Agamemnon (Stratos Pachis).

Two of the actors, including the leading man Pilades (Kyriakos Katrivanos), are members of the Communist Party. They meet secretly, accompanied by the director's son, Orestes (Petros Zarkadis), on leave from his army service. To lure audiences to their performance, the troupe performs a preliminary song-and-dance, in which spectators soon join. Their performance of Golfo the Shepherdess, a popular 19th-century idyll, has barely begun when Pilades is arrested and spirited away by the secret police.

The next performance also ends abruptly when Agamemnon makes a patriotic announcement denouncing the Italian invasion of Greece. He is cheered wildly until the sounds of approaching aircraft and falling bombs cause everyone to flee the theater. Later, the troupe is interrogated by German troops, searching for an escaped British pilot. Aided by Greek collaborators, the Germans hope to spot any disguised Brit by making each performer recite some dialogue. Foiled, the Germans seize Agamemnon, whose son is in the hills with the resistance. The director is shot, leaving Aegisthus (who informed on him) in charge of the troupe. The entire troupe is arrested and almost executed by German troops, despite the cowardly Aegisthus's pleas to spare him. They are saved by a resistance attack and the abrupt withdrawal of the Germans.

The next parts of the film are controversial, dealing with the role played by British troops who sided with the monarchists and even with former collaborators in the civil war that erupted in December 1944. As part of that war, Orestes takes his revenge on his mother and her lover. The war itself is rendered in almost balletic style. In a darkened town, the troupe moves around covertly while the leftists are advancing along a main street firing guns as they go. The leftists are soon routed by the better-armed and organized British troops.

The battles are replaced by more clandestine struggles, with leftist guerrillas hiding in the hills and secret-police officers using thuggish methods (including rape) in their interrogations. The severed heads of two guerrilla leaders are displayed by the victors, while the prisoners, including Orestes, are shipped away. Orestes' death in prison serves as the catalyst for a resuscitation of the troupe, led by Elektra (Eva Kotamanidou). The film ends as it began--with the opening of a performance and the original troupe emerging from the train station onto an arid square.

THE TRAVELLING PLAYERS was produced on the sly in Greece in 1974-75 during the military dictatorship, with a false script to throw off the authorities and a soundtrack that was later re-dubbed. It is unusual in its portrayal of a Balkan Greece virtually unknown to tourists, the northern towns and villages connected by dirt roads winding through mountains that loom like walls. The best use of one of cinematographer Giorgios Arvanitis's characteristically long takes occurs as the troupe, singing their preliminary tune, stops dazed at the entrance to a burnt-out village of stone houses. Greeting them are two hanged men and an official German pronouncement.

Performances in the film may have been affected by the clandestine nature of the filming, since the actors were told about scenes only the night before shooting. As a result, their performances seem muted by the emphasis on camerawork and location. The most successful sequences in the film are the four monologues delivered full-faced to the audience. The first one is delivered by Agamemnon, who recalls the expulsion of Greeks from Smyrna during the 1920-22 Greco-Turkish war. The second is by Agamemnon's daughter, Elektra, who talks about the December shooting which sparked that struggle. Later the two veterans of the war, Pilades and the Poet (Greg Evaghelathos), talk of the regime's torture of prisoners and the disappointment with the political terrors that doomed their cause to defeat.

Although there are any number of subtle moments in the film, even its admirers admit it is long and difficult, especially for audiences unfamiliar with its subject matter. Still, it won top prizes at film festivals in Cannes, Taormina, Thessaloniki, Berlin, Brussels, and Portugal as well as special commendation from the British Film Institute (which named it the best film of the year). (Violence, extensive nudity, sexual situations, adult situations.) leave a comment

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