First time with Theo Angelopoulos.
The film starts twice. We see the children approach a train station at night, enter it, walk to the platform and hesitate before a departure for Germany. At the last moment they decide to board but the train leaves and they are left standing immediately in front of it, staring point-blank as faces and arms slide by above them. They stand still, facing away from us; the train leaves and they are left staring into the darkness.
After a few establishing sequences (involving the ominously unseen presence of a voiceless mother; a wave goodbye to a ragged and deluded man in a compound) they repeat the visit – this time they board in time; there is an emancipatory rush. They are given another opportunity to accede to the stream of life that they have watched pass by “every day”. LitM dramatises their fall from innocence, the near-extinguishing of their childish hope amid the empty landscapes and haunted, hostile figures of a country that seems inescapably and permanently post-war.
TA initially foregrounds the religious overtones of their attempt to find their father somewhere in the north. Voula imagines writing to their father that their mother, who has repeatedly interrupted the story of Genesis that young V tells to younger Alex, “doesn’t understand you”. The mental letter describes a hopeful pilgrimage, until she says that they will only stay with him temporarily so as not to inconvenience him – they just want to know. While this evokes Christian humility it also reasserts the reality of the journey. The factory to which they are ushered by a policeman after this first abortive trip looms high above them like a cathedral, but inside their bitter uncle disowns both the siblings and their pretences: “There is no father. There is no Germany.” V has been eavesdropping; she storms out in tears. LitM dances with these intrusions of reality into the symbolic.
There are a series of scenes that isolate the children from the world. They wait at a police station with a traumatised widow; the officers run outside into the snow like children only to have frozen like statues when the children join them. In a lamplit street a bride storms out of a wedding; a car drags a dying horse through the snow as the reanimated festivities parade behind the children — they sniffle and weep at the confrontation with death.
Their innocence and excursions suggest La Strada, an environment that becomes focused around a Fool and a Zampano: a generous, youthful amateur dramatist (who leads a troop like a desolate depression-era analogue of the one in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern) and a greased, glowering truck driver whose demeanour hums quietly with menace. They swing LitM in the direction of fairy tales (consecutive encounters; Gorey caution) – “I don’t eat children!” jokes the former, but the latter winds towards a central, traumatic action that crushes V’s innocence like the horrors threatened beyond the pale of Pia Marais’ The Unpolished. This is seriously destabilising to watch, to the extent that it partly occluded a few of the later developments (in general V’s interactions with subsequent male authority, but particularly her developing attraction toward the young dramatist – which is ultimately so touching as to dispel the fog).
LitM is strung together with mesmeric scenes: the framed movement in the first abandonment at a strange platform; (particularly) long-shot young A wandering in front of a marching military band while a Greek flag is hoisted before slumped apartments and distant mountains; the sequences on the beaches (again Fellini), especially the dance by the wagon (again); the gift of a seemingly blank snippet of film reel; heavy construction plant as a churning leviathan before the tiny children. Fellini again in the later climax: the giant stone hand hauled out of the sea by a helicopter and towed away across the sky. This and the leviathan peak on the symbolic plane through their adoption of a childish perspective. The silent rape of V’s innocence and A’s maturing demeanour tilt LitM towards its Grave of the Fireflies trajectory.
TA’s world is cold and empty, a stagnant post-industrial waste that opens out like the outskirts of La Notte but hugs the horizon with a grimmer poverty. The pageant of bereft and capricious figures paints a picture of a country uprooted and gone to seed. Was most struck with the distinctive style, which operates in the Tarkovsky/Antonioni/Ceylan mode of pensively choreographed silence, but which also bleeds with a more accessibly sentimental tone (I liked this from wiki about Eleni Karaindrou’s stirringly mournful score: “Karaindrou stated the impetuous children strongly reminded her of the romantic escapes from earlier times, which is why she wanted the soundtrack to contain traces of Mendelssohn and Franck. When it came to the selection of the fitting instrument, she chose the oboe, because it is romantic and screams at the same time.”) Feels analogous to Bicycle Thieves‘ blend of melodrama and neo-realism – perhaps too sentimental, at times.
Cold and empty, though the ending was unquestionable. I went out into the warm street and felt so sad.