Theo’s first entry in his trilogy of silence, ‘Voyage To Cythera’, marked the next phase of his career, the shift into personal journey-as-search-for-identity narratives that serve a deeper symbolic purpose that is clearly distinct from his earlier political work, yet still related to it. The story is simple: an old Greek man exiled for being a communist after the end of the civil war returns to his former homeland after 32 years and tries to reconnect with his past, only to find that the Greece he knew and loved is gone.
Voyage To Cythera has much to say about the way modern Greece is different from old Greece, the concept of home/nation(especially as a metaphysical construct), and the artificiality of national borders. Spyros, the main character, exists as a cypher in this regard. He is meant to represent the ‘old ways’ that have been forgotten, and brushed aside. In a a bleak variation of Homer’s Odyssey, Spyros now feels like a stranger in his home land, and this feeling of dislocation and estrangement is what Angelopoulos is primarily concerned with. Lacking a solid identity, Spyros exists in a kind of beauracratic and spiritual no man’s land, as a ghostly, unwelcome reminder of a tragic past. The metaphor of displacement and ‘spiritual’ desolation is extended throughout the rest of the film, with considerable formal mastery, as this old and withered man is continually juxataposed against a cold, barren, wintry landscape that he once proudly called home. The concerns of this film are therefore existential rather than political, but as usual with Angelopoulos, the socio-political context is unavoidable.
With this in mind, Voyage To Cythera is arguably Theo’s most topical film, as it dealt with an issue that was quite contentious in Greece during its time of release. Although it’s not strictly a political film per se, it’s much easier to read as a political/social allegory than Beekeeper or Landscape In The Mist, the other two films in his trilogy of silence, because it deals with the aftershock of the Greek civil war and in this regard almost follows on directly from The Travelling PLayers(again, Theo’s oeuvre is one of the most fascinating and cohesive in this regard, because the historical films lead almost directly into the trilogy of silence, which speaks mostly of absence and dislocation, and then to the border trilogy, which hints at the possiblity of renewal). Anyway, the point is, during this 30 year period that Spyros was exiled from Greece, the country, particularly the rural areas, ‘emptied out’ significantly, as many either fled for the U.S, Canada, Australia etc in hope of a better life, or relocated to the citys in order to find work. The consequence of widespread rural depopulation in Greece was the slow but gradual breakdown of traditional communities, and what Spyros finds after returning three decades later is nothing but absence. Theo has said many times that the reason he focuses on rural/village life so much is because he thinks something ‘died’ there, and Spyros, and characters just like him, are the walking dead in the new order of modern Greece that bares little resemblance to its cultural past.
As usual with Angelopoulos films, the visuals are stunning; dreamy, poetic and graceful, with a painterly sense of composition, marked by extended long takes and complex staging, they belong in a class reserved for the cinematic elite. In one particularly striking sequence, Spyros is placed on a raft, with an umbrella, in the pouring rain, suspended, at sea, while indifferent politicians and locals decide his fate. Theo also combines his love of theatre by giving Spyros a monologue that allows him to claim victory over death(“I fooled you five times. Five wars, prison and a firing squad”) against a backdrop of personal defeat, while cameras track and circle him. Katrakis’s superb delivery, combined with Theo’s technical mastery, imbues the scene with incredible depth and pathos.
The only flaw with this movie is the whole ‘movie-within-a-movie’ scenario at the beginning which sets the film up too obviously, and just seems like an unnecessary, almost pretentious, theatrical device. Angelopoulos has suggested that the movie is meant to occur in Alexander’s head, and what we are watching isn’t really happening, as one possible interpretation, but for me this is silly, and robs the film of its dramatic significance. The meta aspect of V.T.C has been compared to 8 1/2, and for those inclined to analyse films in this way it could be a useful reading strategy, yet it does feel at odds with the emotional trajectory of the film, unless the point of such an interpretation is that Alexander eventually severs all ties with his cultural roots.
Whether the conceptual framing device is truly effective or not is open to debate, but overall, Voyage To Cythera is one of Theo’s most balanced efforts in terms of uniting form and content, and one of the key films in his oeuvre.
*Many ideas from this review were taken from, or inspired by, Andrew Horton’s great book ‘The FIlms Of Theo Angelopoulos: A Cinema Of Contemplation’, which is highly recommended for admirers of Theo’s unique cinematic vision