Theo Angelopoulos was a filmmaker who transcended Greek culture while he documented it. His 13 features, from 1970’s Reconstruction to 2008’s The Dust of Time, are inextricably Greek, but also belong to a much larger tradition, somewhere between Michelangelo Antonioni and Bernardo Bertolucci, and talking about his films outside of Greece or outside of the larger context of world cinema is impossible.
His first films were made during a period where reactionary military juntas dominated the Greek government and his final films were made during a period of economic depression, and the unrest of the times in which he worked is written directly on the film. By the same token, he began making films just after one of the most fruitful times for European cinema (and cinema in general), and his work can be seen as a continuation of the disconnection and societal paranoia that filmmakers like Andrzej Wadja brought to the forefront in the 1960s.
When Angelopoulos released Reconstruction in 1970, Greek cinema focused primarily on the Greece the rest of the world knew. Greek directors like Michael Cacoyannis made significant films, but Reconstruction was still a fantastic step forward for the country’s film community artistically. It’s hard to imagine a scene where a groundskeeper, who recently murdered his lover’s husband, wanders through a small Greek city, only to stumble on a group of homeless men singing a haunting song existing before Angelopoulos.
The film begins by explaining that the village of Tymphaia had a population of 1,250 in 1939 and a population of 55 in 1965. Angelopoulos doesn’t let the issues behind his films linger as subtext, but instead starts his first film by practically stating the fact that poverty had driven many Greeks from the country, and then spends the next 97 minutes reenacting, in minute detail, the events surrounding a real murder that was tangentially caused by a husband leaving his family to find work in Germany. While other filmmakers may have let the pointed, palpable anger behind the film dominate the tone, Reconstruction is an exercise in quiet and subtlety.
This political anger, neither subtext nor screed, would become a defining trait of Angelopoulos’ films. Reconstruction, as a whole, sets forth many of the techniques that Angelopoulos would make his stock-in-trade. The languid pacing, slow tracking shots and handheld long takes, and non-linear structure contribute to Reconstruction telling a simple story in a very complex way, similar to his later masterpieces The Travelling Players and Landscapes in the Mist.
The tension of the film doesn’t come from whether or not Eleni and the groundskeeper will be caught, but from the guilt and alienation of a small-town gossip. The murder takes place off-screen, and then only at the end of the film, but there’s a certain indignity to the investigation and titular reconstruction by the detectives and journalists as the two murderers confess. Details of the murder emerge slowly from two points of view: the investigators, working off the details given to them second-hand, and the lovers, whose story is shown on screen. While the police and community paint Eleni as a whore and make a child who’s about to be sent to an orphanage point out the cellar in which his father’s body was hidden, the audience see a lonely woman fall in love with a man, almost unwittingly, and seek escape after her abusive husband returns.
This fascination with the disconnect between the truth and the details that emerge afterwards predicts some of the great things that have happened in Iranian cinema in the past 25 years. It’s hard to watch the detective in charge of the investigation list the details of the murder after we’ve seen the complexity of the relationship that led to it without thinking of Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s A Moment of Innocence, in which the facts behind a true incident of violence are revealed through the making of a film about it, or Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up.
Angelopoulos is, to my mind, a filmmaker who brought about a transition in world cinema from the disengagement of the 1960s and 1970s to the shifting points of view and non-linear structures of the 1980s and 1990s. His feet are very clearly in both worlds, and he represents the best of two styles which are rarely associated. Reconstruction is the first film of his transitional filmography, and, much like his later films, it is a great work of European neorealism and a great work of Eastern Mediterranean political documentation, reflecting society in a broken mirror.