Although The Travelling Players was the first film to alert most of us, in 1975, to the work of Greek director Theo Angelopoulos, it was actually his third feature film. The first, made in 1970, was Reconstruction, and I watched it this week, courtesy of the Artificial Eye box set that collects together his early work.
Reconstruction is shot in black and white, and is a kind of rural film noir whilst also being a lamentation for the decline of the traditional Greek village and its culture. The opening shot has all the characteristics of Angelopoulos’ later, distinctive style: it’s a long take of a bus pulling up on a muddy road below a mountain village. A small group of people get off the bus and start trudging uphill towards the village through pouring rain. The way the people move, across the frame and circling around each other, will evolve into the inimitable choreography of his future films. And with this first glimpse we are in what will remain familiar territory in an Angelopoulos film: the rain-lashed mountains, villages and towns of northern Greece, rather than the more familiar tourist locales. Interesting to note, that Angelopoulos’ film, released in 1970, contradicted a series of films – Zorba the Greek, Never on a Sunday, and so on – that reinforced the stereotype of Greece as a land of sun, passion and lively music. Instead, Angelopoulos shows that the stereotype is already a fading memory.
The essence of the story can be stated briefly: a police investigative team have been sent to the village to stage a reconstruction of the murder of a man who has returned to the village after working in Germany as a gastarbeiter. While his death, at the hands of his adulterous wife and her married lover, is re-staged a news crew (with the reporter played by Angelopoulos) follows the breaking news story. Disrupting the chronology of events, and interweaving interviews by the news team, Angelopoulos isn’t presenting the audience with a conventional police thriller. Instead, he manages to turn the story of the crime into a bleak portrait of the gradual extinction of the Greek village.
Over the opening images we hear a snatch of the narration by the TV news reporter (the voice is that of Theo Angelopoulos) outlining the stark demographics of this ancient village: its population has dwindled from 1,250 people at the 1939 census to 85 in 1965. It’s a trend that has continued mercilessly, not only in Greece but across Europe’s rural areas, as the young have left the villages for jobs and modernity in the cities. Today, roughly 66 % of Greeks live in urban areas (still a smaller proportion than other European countries). Like the murdered husband in the film, people leave to find work or educational opportunities, leaving behind a dwindling population of elderly inhabitants. The village literally dies as the school, the church, the surgery and the shops close. The older people will die and everything will be abandoned. Untended, the fields will decay as rain washes away once fertile soil. At one point in the film an elderly village resident says to the TV crew:
In the old days these villages were better off. There was plenty of work around. Now all the young ones are leaving. It’s only us old ones who are left. Then we’ll die and the villages will be empty…and when the villages are empty, that won’t be too good for the cities either.
Village culture dies, too, including the traditional songs and communal dances. It’s not without significance that after the opening narration, the next thing we hear on the soundtrack is an old mountain song from Epirus, this area of northern Greece. Epirus has its own tradition, expressed in songs, dances and local costumes. The song on the soundtrack, ‘The Little Lemon Tree’, is one of the most characteristic songs of the region.
What was it that attracted Angelopoulos’ interest in the dying traditions of these Greek villages? In an interview in 1993, he said:
The old Greek village had a spirit, a life, full of work and play and festivity. Of course, Greek villages began to lose population by the turn of the century, but it was really World War II and the subsequent civil war in Greece that completely destroyed the reality and concept of the Greek village. Our whole way of life was changed by these two catastrophes. … Part of the result was that in the 1950s over 500,000 village men went to Germany, but also to America and Australia and other places to become guest workers. Suddenly the men were gone and the women remained. With all these changes, the spirit of the villages began to die.
It’s important to note, however, that Angelopoulos is not a city romantic who idealises the village. The film builds a sense of the closed-in, oppressive atmosphere of the village, its prying and its gossip. Nowhere is this sense of repressive values more evident than in the penultimate scene where the adulterous and murderous wife is attacked by the screaming, vengeful village women as she is led away by the police. As always, Angelopoulos harks back to the ancient tales of Greek myth: this might be Clytemnestra attacked by the Furies.
As the film unfolds, we watch the murder scene re-enacted, separately, by the two suspects – the wife Eleni, and her lover Christos. Key witnesses and members of the investigative team are interviewed on film by the TV reporter. But we never truly learn how the murder was carried out. In the final scene we are returned to the moment of the murder as Eleni’s husband, back from Germany, walks to their house and enters. A dog howls as the camera remains focussed on the front of the simple stone cottage. There is silence. Then Eleni’s three children come into the yard and play, soon joined by Eleni herself. Christos leaves, and Eleni and the children go inside and close the door.
Reconstruction was made at the point when the Greek military junta had been in power for three years. The junta had imposed strict censorship on the arts. The leaders of the junta were all village men who believed that the moral fabric of the country was under threat, and who aimed to restore village morality and Greek Christian values. It was a difficult time for a leftist like Angelopoulos to make a film that raised critical questions about those values. Angelopoulos senses something lost with the decay of the Greek village, but he also succeeds in smuggling into the film a critical perspective on the repressive nature of the traditional values proclaimed by the military regime. One way in which this achieved is through the compelling central performance by Toula Stathopoulou as Eleni, a woman who is rock-like in her inexpressive determination. It is through her portrayal that we begin to feel the oppressive weight of the male-dominated society in which she lives. In one of the few sentences she utters, she appeals to her brother, ‘Help me, I’m lost’.
In that 1993 interview, Angelopoulos said:
What do I want to happen? I simply want our life here to become more human. We need to return to those places to find much of what is still important and authentic to our lives. Theo Angelopoulos
- Angelopoulos: the trilogy of silence
- Theo Angelopoulos: a Greek tragedy
- Angelopoulos: The Weeping Meadow