"In the beginning, was the darkness….and then there was light!"
For Voula (Tania Palaiologou), a girl approaching her teens and her little brother Alexandros (Michalis Zeke), about half her age, this profound snippet from the Genesis that she calls a bed-time story, serves as the ultimate mantra of hope and optimism, as the siblings embark on their rather unreasonable and perilous cross-country journey to reach their father! All they know from their mother (who we never seen on screen) is that he resides somewhere in Germany.
The naive children give little thought to it and decide to catch a train to Germany, never once suspecting that their mother, embarrassed from their constant questioning might just have fabricated the whole father story to withhold their illegitimacy from them. However, they believe that eventually there will be light, and the prospect of finding their father becomes a reason to carry out the journey, a reason to go on; a reason to break out of their comfort zone and step out into a world unknown.
Greek master Theodoros Angelopoulos' "Landscape In The Mist" (1988) may be described on some sites as a road movie centering around two children, but it would be a sin to reduce something so phenomenal, to something so concise and limited. Angelopoulos' film is a cinematic masterpiece that is beyond classification.
Even though it primarily chronicles the journey, as seen through the eyes of these children, "Landscape in the Mist" transcends from the literal to the lyrical in showcasing a journey that is not only physical but also spiritual. For the kids, it is an odyssey that, apart from covering physical distances,also traverses emotional heights, serving as an extraordinary rite of passage, a coming of age.
While the rather risky expedition the kids undertake provides the narrative edge to keep the viewer hooked, Angelopoulos packs in a lot of thematic material to ponder on along the way. "Landscape in the Mist" talks of a quest that is universal to all of mankind; a long, unpredictable voyage into the unknown, or a seemingly never-ending existential struggle to attain a far-reaching, unattainable goal. Fate, destiny, and a sense of purpose to life are predominant themes of the film.
As they travel from place to place, board trains, get evicted for lack of tickets, we hear Voula's voice-over narrating unwritten letters to her father, which sometimes spell hope and enthusiasm and at other times, express fatigue and the desire to give up their quest. And yet, something keeps them going, despite the apathy shown by an uncle and his disheartening comments about their father's existence.
The kids run into a kind soul, a young Orestes (Stratos Tzortzoglou) who works with the Travelling Players (a reference to Angelopoulos' 1975 film). They are a theater troupe, now reduced to wandering about, in search of audiences and a theater to perform their beloved play, "Golfo, the Shepherdess". For these artists, performing the play is their sense of purpose in life, but sadly their prospects are dwindling. They are steadfast however, and keep on, for they believe that theater is their only destiny.
Orestes himself struggles with an uncertain future and his unproductive journey thus far. "I'm a snail slithering away into nothingness", he says, for the time would soon come to end his association with the troupe and the kids in order to go into an inevitable Military service. He dreads this future in the army and fears being left to perish. And yet, his purpose in the story inadvertently becomes that of a protector for the kids, a guardian angel of sorts. Then could Military service actually be his vocation, his calling, a destiny chosen for him, for he is the one who protects?
A gifted filmmaker that Angelopoulos is, he manages to strike an unusual balance between the cold, distant and calculated and the melancholic and emotionally sublime. Slow, long takes dominate with accompanying silences, allowing the viewer to rest with every fantastic, mist-laden frame that lingers on screen generously, making a powerful impact. Sometimes the silence is broken to give way to a cathartic breakdown, courtesy the extremely moving score by Eleni Karaindrou.
The oft-mentioned dying horse/wedding scene is only one instance of the powerful imagery that contains the film's universe within it. One can't overlook that almost prophetic mad rambling of the senile old woman in the police station who keeps repeating "He tied the rope…"! It cannot be a coincidence that soon after, we see a dying horse tied to a rope being dragged on the street.
The snowfall and its transfixed audience staring at the sky and the first sighting of the traveling players emerging from a corner, to eventually vanish in an eerily empty town street, replete with an abandoned, scattered vegetable cart, are sequences of unmatched brilliance. They render a surreal, mystical quality to the film's universe, thereby allowing the viewer to identify with Angelopoulos' world, compelling us to not rule out the possibility of anything unreal happening in it!
There are curiously placed, significant scenes of symbolic importance strewn across the film, accurately driving home the themes of the film. An unsuspecting chicken walks into an unknown territory as onlookers quietly watch it. It treads its steps with equal confidence and caution, and yet it is unaware of the danger that lies ahead. Within moments, a man grabs it and takes it away, presumably to make a meal out it. This situation directly mirrors those of the kids, especially Voula who is unaware of the risk she has taken, venturing out alone into the big bad world, solely responsible for the safety of herself and her brother. She walks into the trap of the wolf, the pedophilic truck driver, leading to a very unfortunate means to a sexual awakening.
It's only a matter of time before this pubescent girl, on the brink of adulthood, develops quiet feelings for the handsome Orestes, her sudden and tragic loss of innocence notwithstanding. Orestes notices this in her eyes when he asks her for that dance, and seems to back away. Theirs is an impossible love. It doesn't have a future. The spiral staircase leading to nowhere that stands next to them in this very scene, speaks volumes of the inner conflicts of Orestes and Voula regarding their future, as well as a relationship that isn't meant to be.
The three young souls make up the foundation of the film, and the film is about their journey, their destiny. A giant hand rises from the waters in one of the greatest scenes ever in the history of cinema, and soars above them, suspended from a helicopter, as some ubiquitous cyclists in yellow raincoats (who also appear in Angelopoulos' "Eternity and a Day" (1998), ten years later!) look on. Is it the hand of fate, or the hand of God? Are the yellow raincoats actually angels, overlooking their activity?
If the hypnotic moments leading to the jaw-dropping conclusion of "Landscape in the Mist", capable of making one skip a beat with their sheer leap-out magnificence and a realization of a prophetic revelation, are anything to go by, then it wouldn't be a stretch at all.