Filmmaker Theo Angelopoulos Dies At 76

Critic David Thomson listed Theo Angelopoulos among a handful of truly great living filmmakers. His movies were epic in length and addressed epic periods in Greek history and mythology. They were among the most visually stunning movies made in the 20th century. He won numerous awards, including the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes in 1995 for Ulysses' Gaze, which starred Harvey Keitel. Angelopoulos died Tuesday after being struck by a motorcycle. He was 76.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The acclaimed filmmaker Theo Angelopoulos has died. He was struck by a motorcycle yesterday in Greece while crossing a road. Angelopoulos was not well-known in the U.S. but he was one of Greece's most famous directors. And he took home multiple awards from the Cannes Film Festival. He blended myth, history, and politics in films that included "Ulysses' Gaze" and "Eternity and a Day."

Pat Dowell has this appreciation.

PAT DOWELL, BYLINE: Theo Angelopoulos called himself a war child. He was born in Athens in 1935, saw the Nazis invade, lived through the Greek civil war, and saw his father arrested and disappeared for months. All of that figured into his movies.

Angelopoulos told NPR he was inspired to make his 1995 story of a filmmaker in the Balkan conflict, "Ulysses' Gaze," by a report of an individual's resilience.

THEO ANGELOPOULOS: (Through Translator) I had heard and I had read that whenever the shooting would stop in Sarajevo, in the snow, in the middle of winter, there would be a lone cellist who would come out in a central square and play his music. And that's where I got the idea for the orchestra.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ULYSSES' GAZE")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Serbs, Croats, Muslims - they come out when there is a ceasefire. They go from place to place and make music in the city.

(SOUNDBITE OF CELLO MUSIC)

DOWELL: In "Ulysses' Gaze," as in all the filmmaker's work, characters cross dangerous and arbitrary borders, followed by a camera that tracks them in famously long takes, through landscapes made mysterious.

And the films have a poetic, travelling rhythm, too, says David Thomson. The author of "The Biographical Dictionary of Film," says Angelopoulos went against the grain of fast cutting that dominated filmmaking by the end of the 20th century. Thomson says there was a reason some Angelopoulos films needed four hours.

DAVID THOMSON: They were films about time. Almost always it was what had happened to a place and to people over the course of their lifetime, and usually the dramatic form was a search or a journey.

DOWELL: Thomson counted Theo Angelopoulos among a handful of the great masters of filmmaking, and not just because of his stunning visual imagination.

THOMSON: The ultimate reason for valuing him so highly is the humanity in his work, and the sense of the terrible damage that has been done to people in a world of so many refugees and displaced persons; people who have lost their roots, lost their family contacts, don't really quite understand what happened to them in life.

DOWELL: Angelopoulos once said that the question that haunted his films is whether we've learned anything from history. That's why so often, past and present, myth and political reality co-exist and struggle in his films. When he was young, he said in 1996, he hoped that films could change the world.

ANGELOPOULOS: (Through Translator) But it didn't happen that way. And now that we know that we can't change the world, but we can do something - for our films to function as witnesses, as testimonies on the fate of men and women.

DOWELL: And he was still providing witness when he died. Theo Angelopoulos was shooting a film about the men and women ground up in the current financial crisis in Greece.

For NPR News, this is Pat Dowell.

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