There's a small, unusual genre of films I call Red Tragedies. Red, as in Communist. What is a Red Tragedy? Well, by and large, Communists do not give much thought to individuals. Their concern is the collective. So, clearly a Red Tragedy is a tragedy that happens to all of a country's workers, not just to one bourgeois (or, worse, aristocratic) person or family. And there's only one event sufficiently shattering for a Red Tragedy - the failure of a Communist revolution.
That's why the genre is small. The filmmaker has to be in sympathy with Communism, to begin with. Then, he has to live in a country where the Communists failed to take over. (Countries where they did have neither the need to bemoan the failure, nor, as we have seen lately, much general sympathy for the idea that such a failure would be a tragedy.) Moreover, the existing government has to be sufficiently liberal to permit someone to wail about the failure of a revolution. And, finally, there has to be enough money in the country to actually make a film.
1900 was probably the most famous Red Tragedy. Bertolucci tried to make us feel the classical tragedy of the failure of the peasants to take over Italy, instead of the Fascists. Having Fascists around to stack the deck certainly helps put a Red Tragedy across, but Bertolucci's film, while greatly entertaining, was not a success in the U.S., and probably didn't convert anyone.
The Travelling Players is a Red Tragedy from Greece, made by Greek director Theo Angelopolous. I doubt if it will find much favor in the U.S., either. It's just as long as 1900, has no familiar actors, has much the same point of view, and isn't particularly entertaining, at least not for audiences yearning for more kung-fu amphibians. However, this film was not made with wowing American audiences in mind. The Travelling Players is a Greek film for Greek audiences. Anyone else must watch it as an outsider, separated from the themes of the film by culture and history.
The plot of The Travelling Players is Aeschylus' Orestia superimposed lightly on the fortunes of a group of actors travelling around Greece performing a bucolic tragedy. The film starts just before the Second World War, and continues through the troubling times Greece faced after the war, when a civil war broke out between the right and left wings.
The leader of the company is the Agamemnon figure, his wife is Clytemnestra, and they have two children actually named Orestes and Electra. (You'd think that Greek actors would know better than to choose those names for their children.) The company's leader favors the leftists in Greece. The wife's lover is a Fascist. When war breaks out, Agammemnon goes off to fight. And the classical tragedy plays out. Slowly. Very, very slowly. The Travelling Players is ten minutes short of four hours, if they don't give you an intermission.
Angelopolous has made a very unengaging film. The characters have no reality. They exist almost as icons, except that most of them do not carry any meaning, either. Certainly, they never give the impression of being real people, and Angelopolous didn't seem to intend that they should. They are practically placeholders, human hooks to hang not a story, but a political and historical lesson on. Nor is there much that could pass for action. Shots are fired, people are murdered, adulterers adulter, but these incidents are not punched up to excite or entertain.
Combining with the remoteness of the characters and the distancing of conventional plotting, Angelopolous has a distinctive cinematic style that is rather Brechtian. In the entire 3 hours and fifty minutes of The Travelling Players, Angelopolous uses only 80 shots. Some of these shots are 8 minutes or so. This style has some obvious implications. We see none of the conventional handling of conversations, for instance, where two-shots showing both actors are interspersed with close-ups of the performers. Of course, there aren't very many conversations in The Travelling Players, anyway.
Angelopolous' camera is not static, however. He uses many complicated camera movements in this film. But they, too, are very, very slow. He will take 30 seconds or a minute to pan around 180 degrees. It is an unnatural, and sometimes disturbing, slowness, not at all like the way people move their heads to look at things. At its worst, this style makes the viewer want to leap up and forcibly push the camera to where it's obviously creeping. At its best, it encourages the viewer to take a closer, unblinking look at details that are usually lost by snappier photographic styles.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about The Travelling Players is that, despite the extreme length, despite the unengaging characters, despite the overstretched plot, despite the long takes and languid camera, The Travelling Players is still not really dull. It's not fascinating, exciting, pulse-pounding, but it's not quite dull, either. I never felt like going to sleep, leaving the theater, conversing with my neighbor, or doing anything other than watching the film. Angelopolous has a hypnotic effect, of some kind. That the camera work is quite beautiful undoubtedly helps, but the director clearly has the sort of talent that allows him to work in a style that would not work for almost anyone else.
Also, Angelopolous achieves some fine moments in the film. Perhaps the best is a showdown in a dance hall between leftists and right-wing supporters during the civil war. In a single extended shot, Angelopolous uses music and dance to show the conflict between the factions, the final triumph of the conservatives, the violence behind that triumph, and the frightening ideology they represent. It's one of the finest five or ten minutes of film I've seen this year, and serves as a summary of the whole film.
Another fine moment is when an American soldier marries a Greek girl. A traditional wedding song sung by an old lady is cheerfully, brainlessly, corrupted into boogie-woogie by the American guests. It's a perfect example of the heedless, naive way that Americans ignore, usurp, and unwittingly crush foreign cultures, without even realizing that they are doing anything wrong. Unfortunately, these highly insightful moments are separated by lengthy scenes that have no intellectual or emotional impact, to speak of.
Still, The Travelling Players is moderately effective, as a Red Tragedy. My knowledge of the Greek civil war is limited, and worked from the typical anti-Communist assumptions of Americans. Angelopolous' presentation of the victors as little better than re-labelled Fascists, and the American and British intervention as hardly an improvement on the German occupation, was provocative, if nothing else.
The Travelling Players is perhaps the quintessential film that's not for everyone. It takes patience, and a willingness to accept a foreign style. This is not a film that was made for universal audiences. An American must look at this film as a window on a foreign culture, more so than most foreign films. The Travelling Players is a Greek film about Greek issues for a Greek audience. If one can accept its conventions and viewpoint, it returns the work put into watching it.
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