The Greek and Balkan Spirit of Comedy in the Films of Theo Angelopoulos

6 November 2013

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Prof. Andrew Horton is the Director of the Film studies program at the University of Oklahoma and the author of 17 books and award-winning screenplays including Brad Pitt’s first feature film.

theo angeloupous

 FADE IN on an old political refugee Spyros (the late Manos Katrakis) returning  to his Northern Greek village after so many years of exile in the Soviet Union in Theo Angelopoulos’s Voyage to Cythera (1983). When he is near his old home, he begins chirping in what sounds like “bird talk” and soon his call is answered by what appears to be another “bird” speaking.  Soon we see another old man appear and suddenly two long parted friends are united because of their “secret” language they used during the Occupation and the Civil War in Greece that followed. This surprisingly joyous moment is followed by Spyros performing  a “Pontiko” dance on the grave of another friend in the village cemetery. This dance on the grave clearly strikes all viewers as a kind of triumph over death, destruction, war, exile and separation.  In short, the moment is like a New Orleans “jazz funeral”: a celebration of life after death through dance and festivity.


“The world needs cinema now more than ever.”

                                                                    Theo Angelopoulos

No one would accuse Theo Angelopoulos of being a Greek Frank Capra, Jerry Lewis, Charlie Chaplin or James Carrey or even a Hellenic Jacques Tati.  And yet if we embrace a larger world of the “comic spirit” as it has existed through centuries of literature, song and culture in Greece and the Balkans, one can surely identify both “comic” and “humorous” as well as ironic moments throughout the many journeys Angelopoulos’s protagonists embark upon.  From Suspended Step of the StorkUlysses’ Gaze and Voyage to Cythera  to Eternity and a Day and even Traveling Players, I wish to comment on how thematically and in terms of narrative, these “comic moments” contribute to the atmosphere and overall impression these films leave us with.  On a personal note, I would add that after having known Theo for more than twenty five years and written two books and many essays on his work, it is this spirit of “tragic comedy” or dark triumph that appears to be an important and reoccurring theme in his career.

My overall approach builds not only on my studies of Angelopoulos’s films, but also on my comic research in my books, ‘Comedy/Cinema/Theory’ and ‘Laughing out loud: writing the comedy centered screenplay’ (both with U of California Press).  My major thesis is that “comedy” is a much wider world than just jokes, laughter, slapstick.  Take Dante’s Divine Comedy, for instance.  In the largest sense, comedy is about “triumph” in some form, thus Dante’s “comedy” was the triumph of reaching Paradise.  Humour and laughter are one part of comedy, but only a part, and so I am stressing as in the opening example of Spyros’s return to his old village, a sense of personal triumph over all adversity. I wish also to see Angelopoulos’s both dark and joyous sense of the comic within a tradition that can be seen throughout the work of other Balkan filmmakers.

It is important also for this consideration of Angelopoulos’s films to remember one of the points made in Plato’s Symposium near the ending when Socrates and Aristophanes are the only remaining guests and they remark on how often comedy and tragedy cross lines into each other  (Horton, Comedy/Cinema/Theory  3). After all, both tragedy and comedy began as ritual celebrations of Dionysos, the god of wine and drama.  Furthermore, such an extended view of comedy which embraces its possible border crossing into the tragic as well helps us to appreciate George McFadden’s remark that, “The great works of comic writing (and we can add film) have extended the range of our feelings” (243).

Before exploring such dark and joyful laughter, however, a note is offered on what we mean by “Balkan”.   Dina Iordinova best captures the concept as used here when she notes, “In my usage, the Balkans is not a geographical concept but one that denotes a cultural entity, widely defined by shared Byzantine, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian legacies and by the specific marginal positioning of the region in relation to the western part of the European continent” (6).  We are speaking, therefore, of cinemas from the former Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Albania, Greece, Turkey and Rumania most specifically, even when, as Iordinova readily recognizes, these countries themselves often resist the label of “Balkan”.

I would add more specifically that what these Balkan histories represent are complicated but also fertile crossings of Christian Orthodox cultures with Muslim influences from the roughly 500 years of Turkish domination.  In terms of “tragic comedy” as a concept, therefore, it is important to note that we should acknowledge the larger view of “comedy” as meaning a triumph that could be spiritual rather than physical or humorous.  This sense of  “comic triumph” in a spiritual vein has existed in the cultures of the Balkans and especially the former Yugoslavia.   The epic poems of Serbia, for instance, celebrate the Serbian spiritual victory over the conquering Turks during the Battle of Kosovo in the 14th century.  The Turks, such poems declare, only murdered and destroyed Serbs as living creatures, not as Christians and spiritual beings.

Equally important to the humour and sense of comedy of these cultures, however, is a very strong sense of irony.  We know that irony thrives on drawing attention between what could or might be and what in fact is actually reality.  As practiced by Balkan filmmakers, irony often calls forth both tears and laughter as we “get” the difference between ideals and harsh realities, dreams and history.

Of course such a blend of humour and horror is not limited to the Balkans as Roberto ‘Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful (1997) suggests in the tragic irony of its title and ending as the young boy sees an American tank and thinks he has “won” the contest his father (Benigni) has tried to pretend the concentration camp during WWII is instead of a death camp.

The much celebrated director Emir Kusturica’s Time of the Gypsies provides us with a clear example of such dark yet comic irony.  Based on newspaper reportage of actual Yugoslav gypsies who not only worked in crime organisations throughout Italy but who also sold their own children into slavery, prostitution and crime, the film tracks one young boy’s odyssey from Yugoslavia to Italy in a Godfather-like tale (there are, in fact, many direct references to Copolla’s crime trilogy).  As Kusturica’s film ends, the young gypsy Mafia protagonist is murdered and at the funeral his five year old son steals the coins placed over his father’s eyes (an ancient custom)  and runs out of the house.  We can’t help but laugh at the son stealing from his dead father, but on the other hand, it is a “triumph” for the son has learned to follow in his father’s footsteps:   to be a good thief!   Such a moment is ironic, humorous, tragic and triumphant at the same time.  Thus unlike many Hollywood comedies such as Dumb & Dumber (1994),  There’s Something About Mary (2001), Not Another Teen Movie (2002), and Goldmember (2002), films such as Time of the Gypsies and No Man’s Land are able to take on serious topics—the selling of gypsy children and the Bosnian War—but open them up to find laughter that is often dark and ironic and also frequently triumphant in unexpected ways.

It is, finally, also worth noting that Greece has had a tradition of satirical comedy tackling serious topics ever since Aristophanes took to the stage in the 5th century BC with his joyous and imaginative farces such as Lysistrata and Peace that were fully meant as anti-war statements.

I wish now to focus on three dimensions of such a darkly triumphant spirit in Angelopoulos’s films that offer a much broader sense of “comedy” than suggested by, say, Hollywood’s comic productions.

1: Marriage across borders

The sense of triumph at the end of a “comedy” may be “spiritual” rather than physical.  Certainly romantic comedy has always existed as one of the major forms of the comic spirit and it is the actual wedding near the end which unites what we have come to know as two very different individuals throughout the film we have been following (Horton, Comedy/Cinema/Theory   10).

Marriage as triumph is certainly an important moment in Angelopoulos’s  wedding scene in Suspended Step of the Stork (1991) in which a young Greek bride is standing on  the Greek side of a “border” between Greece and “elsewhere”, and the young groom is on the other side, that is, in another country.  This is a remarkably staged scene in which wedding crowds surround each participant on each bank and a priest, arriving by bicycle, conducts the service, blessing the young couple on each side of the border.  Clearly this is a triumphant ceremony but there is a serious problem:  husband and wife are in different countries and will not live together physically.  The unusual sense of this wedding is also highlighted by the fact that all takes place in silence since the participants are aware that border guards will and do break up such “illegal” actions if caught.   And yet the ceremony is carried out.  Thus, once more, we are, like Dante, talking of a spiritual triumph in Angelopoulos’s symbolic nod towards transcending borders.

The young bride explains to a TV journalist who is making  a documentary about a Greek politician who disappeared “up North by the borders”, that even though politics and wars have and will keep her “husband” from ever being physically with her (they met as children and fell in love before the current boundaries were re-drawn), they have chosen to be so married (Horton.  The Films of Theo Angelopoulos  163).

But if the wedding is a “comic triumph” in one sense, as we have already mentioned above in our discussion of Balkan culture, a larger question remains unanswered:   “How many borders do I have to cross before I arrive home?” comments the politician who has dropped out (played by Marcello Mastroianni) in The Suspended Step of the Stork.  It becomes a key question for so many Balkan films as well as for all the nations involved in the recent conflicts.


Once more, however, Angelopoulos ends his film on a “triumphant” note as he shows a series of broken telegraph poles along the river border, each with a repair man in a yellow rain coat, climbing the poles and beginning to connect wires from pole to pole, reaching across the border.  Such quietly triumphant or hopeful images are, Balkan scholar Nader Mousavizadeh suggests, more typical of the cultures of the area than simply individual constructions of the filmmaker, Angelopoulos in this case.  Mousavizadeh notes, for instance, that it is actually difficult to truly understand what separates people in the Balkans for there is actually so much that makes them all quite similar.

Even today it is difficult to know whether a Montenegran mountaineer brandishing his Kalashnikov is brandishing it as a Yugoslav patriot determined to protect the unity of the country, or a Communist, or as a Serbian patriot, or as a Montenegran patriot, or as a defender of Eastern Orthodoxy, or as a peasant farmer representing the interests of his class, or as a “patriotic bandit” , or, perish the thought, as a plain old bandit.  I agree with Djilas that nationalism in Yugoslavia is a terrifically confusing affair (11).

2:  Forming a community of two or more

So much of history in Greece and the rest of the Balkans has been about the destruction of communities, however they have defined themselves.  But in Angelopoulos’s films, friendships—no matter how brief—suggest that individuals can and do form new communities.

Consider Thannasis Vengos in Ulysses’ Gaze  (1995) as an old Greek taxi driver with his “customer”, Harvey Keitel, a Greek film director who has been in America for many years and has now returned to Greece and begun his own personal odyssey to find a lost film while the Bosnian War rages in the Former Yugoslavia.  First, there is the pure pleasure of seeing Vengos, perhaps the most popular Greek film comedian of all time, on screen again.  It would be like using Jerry Lewis at his present age in such a film.

In the scene, Vengos  stops the taxi in an Albanian snowstorm and becomes friends with Harvey “in his village’s tradition” of sharing music and alcohol.   Such a creation of friendship is a building of bridges  and communication and thus “comic” in the larger sense.  In this case, capped with real laughter as Vengos “speaks” to Nature and throws a biscuit to “her”!  Keitel, his new “friend” stands beside him in the snow, sharing the moment.


In a way similar to the creating of various connecting moments as we have seen in Voyage to Cythera, Angelopoulos shares a variety of such communal moments as Keitel journeys through the Balkans ending up in Sarajevo while the war is still on.  But on the way, as in his oft referenced Homer’s Odyssey, old friendships are renewed (a journalist friend met in Belgrade), and new “communities” made as in Keitel’s final meeting up with the Sarajevo cinema archive director Ivo Levy (memorably played by Ingmar Berman’s actor Erland Josephson).   And if the final scene of Voyage to Cythera shows the triumph of communication via the restored telegraph and telephone lines, Ulysses’ Gaze ends with a final contact between our contemporary film director—Keitel—and actor playing Ulysses in the first film ever made in the Balkans.  Thus yet another “comedy” of triumph through the years and through film despite the war, and the off camera murder of the archivist and his family.

Certainly our opening shot of Spyros returning to his hold village in Voyage to Cythera is likewise another example of this theme of small communities forged in the midst of danger, death and destruction, and we can also point in Eternity and a Day (1998) to yet another variation of such “small communities”:  the friendship of the old poet Alexander (Bruno Ganz) and an Albanian born orphan (Achileas Skevis) who becomes something of a grandson for the poet as he nears his death with no family member to care for him, with a wife who has already died.

Central to the “comic” sense of an ending is the “embrace”, be it an actual one or a symbolic one as in a marriage (Horton.  Laughing Out Loud  15), and Eternity and a Day certainly provides us with this triumphant moment.  Angelopoulos traces this odd friendship that becomes something of a grandfather-grandson relationship across the age barriers, the national boundaries of Albania and Greece and those of social class and cultural background as well. And yet as the film is coming to an end and the young boy is to depart Greece on a ferryboat and Alexander must head for the hospital that he has no hope of ever leaving, our aging poet cries out, “Don’t go” and they embrace one last and loving time as they then spend a few more hours together before their separate odysseys continue.

That they must separate by film’s end is not a conclusion to their friendship and their own “community”.  The embrace seals them as bonded forever through memory and influence.  Homer provided a clearly “happy ending”, in fact what some could call a pre-Hollywood, Hollywood ending in The Odyssey as Athena steps in and brings peace to what would surely have been another massacre as the relatives of those Odysseus and his son murdered, return for revenge.

Angelopoulos’s contemporary odysseys offer no such simple “special effects” and easy solutions.  Yet in the triumph of friendships and newly formed “communities”, the spirit of comic triumph prevails over depression and destruction.

3:  Triumphing over death itself

Near the end of The Traveling Players, the surviving actors and family members of the troupe Angelopoulos traces through the rural areas of Northern Greece from 1939-1952 gather for a funeral for Orestes (Petros Zakardis), the young actor who became an “andartis” fighter during the Greek Civil War and who has died after much torture and suffering in prison.

The traveling players follow a car bearing Orestes’ body down a muddy road to a final resting spot near the sea. They stand around the open burial plot as the body is lowered and two men begin to shovel earth onto the coffin. But at that moment, Electra (Eva Kotamanidou), his sister in the film and since the ancient tragic myth’s were composed, begins to clap.  Her applause is followed by the others as they all begin to clap and the camera pulls back to frame them in the landscape, applauding their departed loved one.  This simple human custom of course joins the three worlds of theater, Greek mythology and real life close to the concluding moments of this 230 minute cinematic masterpiece:  we applaud in theater for a fine performance, but these actors and relatives are turning his life into a fine performance as his days on earth have ended.  He is both a modern individual and the bearer of an ancient name that unites him with Greece’s long and memorable past and mythology.

In one simple shot Angelopoulos captures the ultimate “human comedy”: a triumph over death.  Orestes lives in the applause and memories of all those who surround his tomb.  Once more, this is not the Hollywood ending of It’s A Wonderful Life with Jimmy Stewart returning from the dead to embrace his loving family, but then Greek history has not been written by Frank Capra or Preston Sturges.  And yet the applause on a cold day for a lost friend and relative, is a powerful triumph clearly qualifying as “comedy” in the strongest and best sense.

Towards a new humanism

theo & andy on set pireaus

Angelopoulos is not a comedian.  But his films find ways through images and narrative and characterization to show the triumph of individuals over the disasters and difficulties of history and cultural roadblocks over the centuries.

Aristophanes called himself a “komodidaskelos”  which translates as a “teacher through comedy”.  Angelopoulos does not go for continual laughter in his films, but his triumphs of the human spirit suggest that he might be called a “kinodidaskelos”, an instructor through cinema.  For it is not that art at its best as in the films of Angelopoulos is trying to be didactic, but that, as Bill Nichols reminds us that, “Art preserves the possibility that what is, differs radically from what might be or ought to be” (290).

Angelopoulos in my interviews with him has made it clear that he strongly believes there is a new humanism possible through all the tragedies that have unfolded in the Balkans and especially in Greece.  He has noted in this spirit:

The world needs cinema now more than ever.  It may be the  last form of resistance to the deteriorating world in which we live.  In dealing with borders, boundaries,  the mixing of languages and cultures today, I am trying to seek a new  humanism, a new way. 

And clearly this “new humanism” is centered on making connections, be they by drinking from the same bottle, or carrying out ceremonies across borders, or by connecting and celebrating those no longer on earth.

Finally, carrying a camera rather than a gun is itself a statement of triumph in such a troubled world.  I would add too, that part of Angelopoulos’s new humanism is his art of simplifying and in the tradition of the modern Greek poet Angelopoulos respects so much, George Seferis, “speaking” directly and simply in his cinematic language rather than creating complications and distractions.  These words from Seferis’s “Old Man on a Riverbank” could well be spoken in the quiet triumph of Angelopoulos as well:

I want no more than to speak simply, to be ganted this grace. Because we have burndened song with so much music that it is gradually sinking and we have adorned our art so much that its features have been eaten away by gold and it is time to say our few words because tomorrow the soul sets sail.

Works Referenced

Horton, Andrew.  Comedy/Cinema/Theory.  Berkeley:  University of

California Press, 1991.

___________.  The Films of Theo Angelopoulos.  Princeton:  Princeton

University Press, 1997.

____________. The Last Modernist: The Films of Theo Angelopoulos.

Westport, Conn: Praeger, 1997.

____________.  Laughing Out Loud: Writing the Comedy Centered

Screenplay.  Berkeley:  University of California Press, 2000.

Iordanova, Dina.  Cinema of Flames: Balkan Film, culture and the Media.

London:  BFI Publishing, 2001.

McFadden, George.  Discovering the Comic.  Princeton:  Princeton

University Press, 1982.

Mousavizadeh, Nader.  The Black Book of Bosnia: The Consequences of

Appeasement.  New York:  A New Republic Book, 1996.

Nichols, Bill.  Ideology and the Image.  Bloomington:  Indiana University

Press, 1981.