Ulysses' Gaze is easy to imagine as the darling of Cannes: ambitious, high-minded, artsy . . . and too ponderous for its own good. Writer-director Theo Angelopoulos' 1995 Grand Prize winner is clearly a labor of love, and what a labor. Over the course of nearly three hours, he wheels his camera (and Harvey Keitel) throughout the Balkan peninsula, capturing war-torn dilapidation and photogenic oddities that simply can't be conjured on a sound stage. Homer's The Odyssey, alluded to in the title, is consummately a story of chapters and set pieces, and that's what Ulysses' Gaze serves up -- one gritty wonder after the next. As an example, Angelopoulos coordinated filming the real-world dismantling of a giant statue of Lenin, which is then shipped on a barge down the Danube. The director not only takes in this awesome spectacle through helicopter shots, with particular emphasis on Lenin's impressive head, but he also films the reactions of the understandably awestruck peasants along the banks. Ulysses' Gaze builds on its atmospheric successes through its narrative themes, which include the cinematically meaty quest for three lost reels of film shot by turn-of-the-century Greek pioneers, the contents of which are the stuff of legend. Where Ulysses' Gaze fails to be totally captivating is its drama, a fault to be shared by the script and Angelopoulos' directing of his actors. The dialogue (and its interpretation) alternates between the abstruse, featuring intellectual wool-gathering that often has no moorings, and the melodramatic, involving out-of-nowhere romantic intensity between characters who only just met. Generously, these inspire head-scratching; at worst, laughter. Ulysses' Gaze is nobody's idea of an easy film, but its challenges are more often rewarding than trying. Keitel fans will be pleased that he delivers on two personal trademarks: full-frontal nudity, and a scene where he cries like a tortured animal.
by Derek Armstrong review