Greek film director Theo Angelopoulos is one of the most influential and widely respected contemporary filmmakers, yet his films are still largely unknown to the American public. There are several reasons for this seeming lack of popularity, the main one being that Angelopoulos' films are the antithesis of action films: his cinema is a cinema of contemplation. Angelopoulos forces the spectator into the role of co-author and co-voyager as he or she must contemplate the images and events as they unfold on the screen. The fact that Angelopoulos holds a deep fascination for Greek myths, history, and culture, for the most part unfamiliar to the American audiences, does not add to his films' popularity in this country.
Angelopoulos came to international attention with the release in 1975 of O Thiassos (The Travelling Players). The subject historical epic is the adventures of a group of actors traveling across Greece from 1939 until 1952, performing Golfo, a traditional 19th Century Greek classic tale of unrequited love. In this way, the film covers the last days of the Metaxas dictatorship, the beginning of the World War II, the German occupation, the Liberation and the arrival of the English and the Americans, and the Civil War. Greece's political history and the actors' lives are being woven together along this journey.
The Travelling Players is a meditation on history and myth. In this film, Angelopoulos examines the political power elite, monarchist-fascist, supported by foreign powers that had obstructed Greek democracy since at least 1936. This is a continuation of his investigation, which began with Days of '36 (1972), and would continue with Megalexandros (1979). Angelopoulos' views contradict the "official" Greek history and constitute a fundamental revision of history in which the Left, in general, and the Communist Party of Greece in particular, are given their proper places, and are not depicted as the moral threat to Greek democracy. Angelopoulos' main arguments for this revision have to do with the nature of the Greek resistance to the German occupation and the civil war which followed.
In this representation, Greece is no longer the Greece of the travel brochures, with its eternal sunshine and beautiful islands. Instead of the "travel poster" Greece, Arvantis' camera shows us a land with its scruffy homes, rundown kafeneons, crumbling stone walls, and rutted streets. Greece is no longer the cradle of western democracy, but a place where tyranny is deeply-rooted, and its enchanted islands are places of detention, torture and executions. Greece is a land possessed by Hunger and Death.
On a mythological level, the characters play out a modern version of the myth of the House of Atreus. As it is in Aeschylus' Agamemnon, betrayal is a major theme of the film, betrayal on a personal level by some members of the troupe. But on the contemporary historical level, the betrayal is that of Greece, from outside by other nations, but even more tragically, from within itself. Through this parallel Angelopoulos unambiguously suggests the repetitive cyclical nature of human existence.
On the other hand, since Aeschylus's Oresteia also relates the birth of Athenian democracy, it is from this lesson that Angelopoulos, continuing the lesson of Aeschylus, thematically links individual tragedy to the national struggle for freedom.
The camera of Georges Arvantis has been crucial in all of Angelopoulos' films, and The Travelling Players is no exception. Two-thirds of the film consists of exterior shots in subtle, subdued colors, recorded in the drab light of wintry dawns and dusks. The film is shot almost entirely in long shots that are also long takes, many lasting several minutes, and some as long as seven to nine minutes. The retelling of these thirteen years of history, covered in 240 minutes, required only eighty scenes or takes. On several occasions, during some long takes, there is a shift in time, which is meant to underscore the political linkage between the pre- and post-war military regimes. At other times, objects or characters come into the camera's restricted field of view , somewhat poorly framed, and even unpredictably at times, while outside sounds, near or far away, remind the viewer of the existence of an outside, unseen world. Many of these long takes with little action in them often follow moments of intense emotion. They become, in fact, resting points where the viewer can reflect on the dramatic event he or she has just witnessed. There are three particular long takes, in full shots, with the camera immobile, during which three of the main characters, Agamemnon, Electra, and Pylades, each in turn recount key moments in the history of their country. During these monologues, the actors speak monotonously, without inflection or emotion. But other than these three instances when history becomes intimate through these testimonials, history is observed from a distance, without fanfare, without insightful dialogue.
This film is composed as a mosaic of scenes rather than an ordered narrative as Angelopoulos switches back and forth in time and from one character to another. Using these distancing devices is one of the ways by which Angelopoulos forces the audience to reflect on the broader themes, rather than just the individual participants and moments.
There are no leading stars in this film. Although Orestes is certainly an important character, and the second half of the film is Electra's story even more than Orestes', the true protagonist is the group of players itself. As time passes, the group membership changes, but the group itself survives as a living character.
The Travelling Players is a powerful historical epic, if not an unusual one, as far as American audiences' expectations are concerned. I would certainly discourage seeing this as a first exposure to Angelopoulos' films. For those who appreciate Angelopoulos' work, it is one of his finest works, worthy of several viewings. Personally, I give the film a five-star rating, but viewers who are unfamiliar with Angelopoulos' films will give it one star.