The sudden death of Theo Angelopoulos, the greatest Greek film-maker, while shooting his latest film on the current troubles, has acquired great symbolic significance. In recent months, reporting on Greece has concentrated on the deficit, debt and the untrustworthiness of its people. The films of Angelopoulos remind us of another Greece and a different humanity. In his dreamlike historical films, he chronicled the melancholic nature of a nation torn between an invented tradition of classical glories and a traumatic history of repressive state policies, dictatorship, corrupt and dynastic politics. He narrated the lowly lives of the defeated in the vicious civil war 1946-9, the degradations and melancholy of exile, the Odysseus-like return of people who go back to a place they nurtured in their memories but turns out alien and unwelcoming.
In his mesmeric long sequences, a simple gesture, a silence or smile acquire philosophical depth and historic significance. This is epic cinema made out of the fragments of everyday life.
Coming from the left, as did most of the Greek cultural renaissance of the second half of the 20th century, but ascribing to no orthodoxy, Angelopoulos described the degradations of ordinary people both in the hands of rightwing governments and in the Stalinist regimes where the defeated partisans retreated but found no haven.
For Angelopoulos, humanity survives in the memories and dreams of exiled, travelling people who never fully make it back to Ithaca. What makes us human, Angelopoulos tells us, is found in traumatic memories, in the desire to preserve an imaginary beauty, and in eternal returns perennially frustrated. Angelopoulos was both the Homer of modern Greece, and the country's magical realist storyteller.
For decades, the Greek elites belittled those cultural achievements that didn't fit their view of modernisation defined as insatiable consumption. The sorry state Greece finds itself in today was built against Angelopoulos's poetry of images. If, for a moment, we put to one side the immediate economic news, a largely unreported dramatic picture of decay of the integrated political, economic and media elites that ran the country for the last 60 years emerges. The implosion of this elite is a textbook study in the collapse of a system of power.
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