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Greek passion

Harvey Keitel meets Ulysses' Gaze

by Peter Keough

Scroll down for the interview with Harvey Keitel!

ULYSSES' GAZE. Written and directed by Theo Angelopoulos. With Harvey Keitel, Maïa Morgenstern, and Erland Josephson. At the Brattle Theatre April 18 through 21.

 One of the victims of the Holocaust, it's been suggested, was art; when Beethoven can be played within the gates of Auschwitz, the validity of aesthetics grows doubtful. Neither have matters improved in the decades since, with overlapping massacres making the end of the century as the age of genocide. Yet one of the great if unhailed artists of the world, the Greek filmmaker Theo Angelopoulos, is unwilling to concede the impulse to beauty to the powers of death.

In his staggering, if sometimes unwieldy, masterpiece Ulysses' Gaze, Angelopoulos wagers that three cans of undeveloped film can make sense of the Bosnian inferno. The oldest film footage shot in the Balkans, these reels are lost somewhere in the smoke and blood of shifting borders, internecine warfare, and ethnic cleansing that is the region's recent and past history. To find them, to restore the innocence of this "first gaze," Angelopoulos suggests, might vindicate the art of film, make sense of carnage that defies it, and redeem the soul of whoever finds it.

 The odds of his succeeding in this aim seem slim, but it helps that the seeker is Harvey Keitel, who in the likes of Bad Lieutenant and The Piano has explored more than any other actor extremes of human anguish, transgression, and salvation. He's A., unsurprisingly a Greek filmmaker. Ulysses's story ends with a homecoming; A.'s story begins with one -- his return to his home village after 35 years of self-imposed exile in the United States.

 In a surreal sequence that combines The Umbrellas of Cherbourg with Cinema Paradiso by way of Magritte, an outdoor showing of one of A.'s films in the village's rainy square is interrupted by demonstrations for and against him by progressive and reactionary forces. They meet in opposed ranks of those bearing umbrellas and those carrying torches, separated by riot police. Between the two groups, blind to the danger, passes a solitary woman (Maïa Morgenstern) from A.'s past. Inspired perhaps by this manifestation of unresolved longing as well as by the glimpse of regional conflict his film has incited, A. accepts a commission from the Athens Film Archive to hunt down the missing cans.

 What's inside is a lost work by the two Manakia brothers, pioneering moviemakers who recorded Greek life and culture before the upheaval of World War I. As A. traces their film through Albania to Bulgaria, Romania, and then Belgrade and Sarajevo, his past merges with theirs. He slides murkily into the identity of one of the brothers, who's arrested by Bulgarian authorities as a spy and threatened with execution before being rescued by a widow who looks remarkably like the woman from A.'s past. A few scenes later, he revisits his family as a child at the end of World War II and attends a perpetual New Year's party that lasts from the closing of the Nazi concentration camps to the imposition of Communism three years later. Haunting these memories and A.'s present wanderings are incarnations of the same woman, played by the Klimtian, androgynous Morgenstern, a Penelope weaving together the threads of the intertwined pasts and the uncertain present into an ominous, apocalyptic future.

 As the title suggests, Ulysses' Gaze is ambitious, even overweening in its ambitions, striving to fuse the convulsive nightmare of contemporary history with a critique of the medium and rooting it in one of the fundamental stories of Western literature. At times it gets portentous, even silly -- Angelopoulos's dialogue ranges from sublimely poetic to clumsily pretentious.

Much more consistent is his gift for visual images. A monochromatic flashback is made to the death of one of the Manakia brothers as he films a ship passing in a harbor. A spectral blue, the sailing vessel touches the outer edge of the frame and the filmmaker collapses, even as the surviving world blooms into color. In another sequence A. hitches a ride on a barge bearing the dismembered remains of a towering statue of Lenin. Dwarfed by the remains of this absurd but still threatening Marxist cyclops, he passes undisturbed to his next destination, identified to the authorities, as was his Homeric prototype, as "Nobody."

 Matching the confidence and purity of Angelopoulos's imagery is Keitel's performance. His Everyman is achingly particular, every pain and terror mirrored on a face harrowed by delusion and hope. Occasionally he lapses into the primal howl that was his trademark in Bad Lieutenant, but for the most part his passion and his intensity shimmer with authenticity. In the film's shattering conclusion, in the shattered rathole of a bombed-out movie theater in Sarajevo, A.'s journey ends and begins, his art vindicated and the sacrifice necessary for its victory made tragically clear. Angelopoulos's Gaze may or may not be triumphant, but it is unflinching.


Epic adventure

In a hotel in Memphis, between rehearsing and shooting a scene for his Elvis-flavored film Graceland, Harvey Keitel finds time to talk about a very different film, city, and kind of music.

 "Compared to a sound I'd say it was like being in the middle of a dirge," says Keitel of his first impressions of Sarajevo, where much of Theo Angelopoulos's Ulysses' Gaze was set. "I had been in Sarajevo about two years previous [to shooting the film], on a visit with Vanessa Redgrave for Unesco. I spent two or three days there then." For Ulysses' Gaze, he adds, "We had set out to go to Sarajevo to shoot, but the airport had shut down. The plane just before ours was fired upon, so they canceled our flight."

 They shot, instead, in another battered Bosnian city, Vukovar. The smoking ruins of the baroque, Balkan buildings that give the Sarajevo segment of Ulysses' Gaze its apocalyptic unearthliness are not clever set designs but the aftermath of generations of warfare.

 "Vukovar is a town contested by the Croatians and Serbs," Keitel explains. "It was leveled by the Serbs during the recent civil war, and many thousands of Croatians were killed there. And it was leveled during World War II, when many thousands of Serbs were killed there. There's scene in the film where two young actors perform Romeo and Juliet during a lull in the fighting. That actually took place in the city while we were shooting."

 Keitel, of course, is no stranger to the most remote, desolate, disputed human habitations -- both external and internal. From his incandescent performances in such Martin Scorsese films as Mean Streets and Taxi Driver to his literally naked displays in Abel Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant and Jane Campion's The Piano, he has been driven to seek out and express the most extreme experiences and circumstances. In Ulysses' Gaze he takes on one of the most primal and universal roles: that of the wanderer trying to find his way home in a world of prodigious evils.

 In this case, Ulysses is a moviemaker, and he's searching for three cans of undeveloped film shot in pre-World War I Greece. His hunt draws him deeper and deeper into the Balkan inferno, forcing him to confront not only his past and that of the region but the validity of his art in the face of political and historical realities.

 Keitel acknowledges that such realities are largely ignored by people in this country, but he defends America's recent involvement in the area. "After traveling around there, I want to say how ignorant the Croatian, Serbian, and Muslim leaderships are -- not just the Americans. We are there trying to help. Americans were there making the situation known and calling out to others to come. And some did. Certainly not in the numbers we should have come. I mean, children were dying."

 Keitel is also intolerant of the kind of ignorance that causes a masterwork like Ulysses' Gaze to be neglected by American audiences. Made in 1995, it is just now being released. "They don't see it as a piece of entertainment that will make money," he says of Hollywood film distributors. "It's a difficult movie to sell. As opposed to a story that needs to be experienced. That's the way to sell this movie: sell the experience."

 This notion that film is not an art but a consumer product undermines not only the industry, Keitel believes, but the culture as well. "There is no lack of material. There's a lack of interest and support from the economic quarter. Independent films now are really making a strong impact. But I am afraid it might just be momentary. I am not so sure that the economic factor is either that interested or educated well enough to place a value on these stories.

 "I don't want to be presumptuous, but film certainly is or can be epic poetry in the hands of the right filmmakers. But film is not given its storytelling value. They say that what is missing mostly now for us to advance from our culture is that the art of storytelling has left. So here is a way for us to tell these epic stories of our citizens. This is important for our culture. It's not purely for entertainment, but for the pleasure of evolving. And I'm someone who loves the Three Stooges."

 His new film, Graceland, is about a myth perhaps as great as Ulysses, if not the Three Stooges -- Elvis.

 "I don't want to talk too much about it," says Keitel. "Not because it's a big secret, but because I want people to experience it first-hand. It's a film about myth, about America, and its creation of myth. It has to do with mythology and mythologizing."