06 May 2012

Watching a Greek tragedy unfold

Patrick Comerford

Over Easter, I watched and re-watched Eternity and A Day (1998), a film by the great Greek director Theo Angelopoulos, who died tragically earlier this year while filming in Athens.

Thinking about the tragedies and political uncertainty that may face Greece after today’s election, I sat down last night to watch for the fourth or fifth time The Weeping Meadow (Το Λιβάδι που δακρύζει), a beautiful and devastating meditation by Angelopoulos on war, history and loss.

The Weeping Meadow (2004), the first in a projected trilogy by Angelopoulos, tells the story of modern Greece from the close of World War I to the aftermath of World War II through the sufferings of one family.

The story starts in 1919 with Greek refugees arriving from Odessa near Thessaloniki. They include two small children, Alexis and Eleni, an orphan who is taken care of by Alexis’ parents, Spyros (Vassilis Kolovos) and Danae (Thalia Argirioua).

This three-hour film opens with the refugees arriving, laden with suitcases and trunks. They walk from a sea the shore to the river bank. At the head of the group is their spokesman, Spyros and his wife Danae, with their five-year-old son Alexis and their three-year-old adopted daughter Eleni.

Spyros explains they are Greek refugees who have escaped the Bolshevik revolution in Odessa. After being quarantined in Thessaloniki, they have been allowed to settle in the land they have been given on the banks of the river estuary. The refugees build a small village near the river, and there these two children grow up and fall in love. But difficult times of dictatorship, war and civil war are ahead.

About 12 or 14 years later, we are back in the village, now called New Odessa. Danae and Eleni return by boat to the village after Eleni (Alexandra Aidini) has secretly given birth to twin boys and has given them up for adoption. She is escorted to Spyros; house, the largest in the village. The twins; father is Spyros’ son, Alexis, the boy who walked next to Eleni when they arrived as refugees.

When Danare dies, Eleni is married off to Spyros. But after the wedding ceremony in church, she runs away with Alexis, escaping to Thessaloniki on the back of a truck carrying the musicians who were to play at the wedding.

The leader of the musicians, Nikos (Giorgos Armenis), a violinist, becomes a father figure to Alexis, taking the runaway couple under his protection. In Thessaloniki, Nikos spirits Eleni and Alexis away to a large theatre that serves as a shelter for refugees from Smyrna and other parts of Anatolia, with families living in the boxes and stalls.

When Spyros seeks revenge and arrives in the theatre, the fugitive pair escape to yet another shelter. In the musicians’ own hiding place, the musicians serenade Alexis and Eleni. Nikos recognises the gift Alexis has as an accordionist.

After the military coup in 1936, Alexis has an audition with Markos, a famous musician planning to assemble a band to go to America in Greek emigrant communities. Markos, promises Alexis that he will be part of this group.

Meanwhile, Eleni’s twins, Yannis and Yorgis, now about 12, are reunited with their mother.

The musicians align themselves with the resistance to the regime, and play in an old beer hall for trade unionists on the run from the police. Spyros arrives at the dance, dances with Eleni, and then collapses and dies a heart attack.

Spyros’ Venetian-like funeral on the water is one of great eerie yet lyrical dramatics scenes created by Angelopoulos. After the funeral, Alexis returns to his father’s house in New Odessa with Eleni and their children. There, they find Spyros’ sheep slaughtered by the villagers and hanging from a tree by the house, the blood dripping from their slit necks in pools on the ground below.

The family moves into the house, but the unforgiving villager stone the house and break the windows. During the night, the village is flooded and is abandoned by the villagers. At dawn, they row their boats among the submerged houses to higher ground, bringing with them their icons and their meagre possessions.

Alexis and his impoverished family return to Thessaloniki, to find trade unionists, musicians and members of the resistance are rounded up, tortured, and executed.

In a field of white sheets hanging out to dry in the wind, a scattered and disparate group of musicians are playing near the seashore. Shots ring out, the musicians disperse, and Alexis and Eleni seek refuge in a nearby house. From the window, they see Nikos, mortally wounded, stumbling through the field of sheets before he gestures goodbye, clutches his stomach, collapses and dies.

By the rainy, gray morning, a small crowd of well-wishers has assembled on the seafront in Thessaloniki to send off Markos and his musicians as they leave for America. Alexis joins them, leaving behind Eleni and their twin sons. She has knitted him a red sweater, and Alexis grabs a thread as he boards the small boat to embark the liner. Eventually, the thread breaks off.

Alexis writes to Eleni from New York about his disappointments. But will he ever make his way through the American labyrinth to return to his Ariadne?

In the night, Eleni is arrested by the fascists, taken to prison and tortured. When she is freed, she returns to find her house and her neighbourhood in Thessaloniki have been burned down. In America, Alexis joins the army so he can become a US citizen and bring Eleni and their children to America.

After the end of World War II, Eleni is jailed again for sheltering a wounded partisan during the Greek Civil War. She leaves jail in Thessaloniki in 1949, to find out that Alexis died four years earlier in Okinawa.

Eleni sets out to find the body of her son, Yannis, a government soldier who has been killed in the civil war. Two old women from her old village comfort her and express their remorse for the way they treated Eleni and her family years earlier.

One of the old women (Toula Stathopoulos) tells Eleni that her other son, Yorgis has also been killed in the civil war, fighting as a partisan. She takes Eleni to the spot where these brothers were reunited and embraced for the last time.

The old lady tells Eleni that Yorgi still lies where he fell – in Spyros’ old house, now almost totally drowned in the waters in the middle of the lake.

Eleni rows out to the house, and collapses, weeping, on her son’s body. She rises, screaming in heart-wrenching calls of grief. Now she is now alone in the world.

Throughout this movie, Eleni and Alexis constantly finds themselves on the wrong side of the tracks and left out to dry. This heart-breaking story draws on themes from myth, epic and tragedy, and the film is a stately procession of enigmatic, starkly beautiful images that seem to gesture towards an outside mythological world.

The haunting score by Eleni Karaindrou – much of it performed by the travelling musicians – is interspersed with sparse dialogue and , separated by long stretches of silence.

Running time: 185 minutes.


Alexandra Aidini (Eleni)
Nikos Poursanidis (Young Man)
Giorgos Armenis (Nikos the Fiddler)
Vassilis Kolovos (Spyros),
Eva Kotamanidou (Cassandra)
Toula Stathopoulou (Woman in Coffee House)

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