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War Story

A film about no less than an entire century, Theo Angelopoulos's broodingly majestic Ulysses' Gaze, the Grand Jury Prize winner at Cannes two years ago, is an Odyssey for the 20th-century Balkans conflict.

Harvey Keitel plays "A," a Greek-American filmmaker researching a documentary on the Manakia brothers, Greek cinema pioneers. "A" searches desperately for legendary newsreel footage they shot during the first few decades of the century. His journey becomes an eyewitness account of war, taking him from northern Greece to Albania and Romania and at last into a bombed-out Sarajevo, where the devastation has turned the city into a giant gray cloud of death, and Yugoslavia into a fast-fading memory. Along the way "A" enters into various dream states, half-relationships with women (all played by Maia Morgenstern) who may or may not be real, and his own past.

When he finally meets the curator (Erland Josephson) who has saved the Manakias' footage, it becomes all too apparent how much moving images have played a part in our own visions, thoughts and memories. "What am I if not a collector of vanished gazes?" the curator remarks, surveying the films he has held onto through tragedy and destruction. In its scope and breadth, Ulysses' Gaze feels at times like a compendium of the century's world art-house cinema, with a little of Fellini's surreal tableaux mixed with Bergmanesque introspection, Antonioni's barren oases and the complex grace in camera movement of Mizoguchi, Welles and Murnau.

Angelopoulos's three-hour opus is, in fact, practically a series of brilliant, intense short films that last only one take. One amazing sequence with "A" and his family unfolds during a single dinner party that moves through the New Years of 1945, 1947 and 1950. Each celebration is disturbed by the shifting political winds -- soldiers and authorities making arrests, confiscating property -- until the players merge for one last family portrait, and we find "A" has become a boy, the camera inching hesitantly toward his face and the uncertain future that lies in its expression. It's an extraordinary sequence in a single mesmerizing shot, and only one of the many aching ruminations in Angelopoulos's melancholy film.

Ulysses' Gaze.
Directed by Theo Angelopoulos. With Harvey Keitel, Erland Josephson and Maia Morgenstern.

Not rated.
180 minutes.
Friday and Saturday at the Museum of Fine Arts.

 
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