Back in 1905, two brothers, Yannakis and Miltos Manakis, lived in what is now Albania. Then it was one of the European parts of the Ottoman Empire, which also included Greece, Romania, Bulgaria, and whatever has now replaced Yugoslavia. These brothers were the first makers of motion pictures in that area.

A contemporary filmmaker, called simply A, returns to his native Greece for a screening of one of his films that is controversial there. He talks to someone who in his youth had been an assistant to Yannakis Manakis, who was then himself an old man exiled in Greece. This person tells A that, just before his death, Yannakis had rambled on about how he wanted to recover three reels of film that he and his brother had left undeveloped long ago. A himself becomes obsessed with finding these reels, and Ulysses' Gaze is the episodic story of A's journey through the civil-war torn Balkans in search of the film.

The opening sequence of Ulysses' Gaze shows some of the Manakis Brothers' actual footage: some women in a village, weaving. This is followed by a sequence that is itself a small masterpiece of art. The man who had been Yannakis Manakis's assistant is telling how, one day at Salonika, Manakis had wanted to photograph a blue ship that was in the harbor and was about to set sail. We see the two of them on a quayside, the blue sea behind them. The peculiar thing is that the assistant is not shown as the young man he was then, but as the old man he is now as he is recounting the story to A. We get an intuitive sense of distances in time: first back to when this old man was young and was Manakis's assistant, and then back to when Manakis and his brother were young and were filming the black and white, silent footage we have just seen. Manakis is finishing his camera setup and waiting for the blue ship to sail out into the harbor. We see the ship enter on the right side of the screen, and just at that moment Manakis dies, in a stylized way, settling with the assistant's help back into the chair behind him. The assistant, still telling his story to A all the while, walks to the right, to where we now discover A standing. The assistant finishes the story, and A walks back to the left. A passes the point where we had just left Manakis and his camera. Impossibly, they are no longer there. We continue following A to the left, and we reach a point where, impossibly, we catch up again with the blue ship. We look past A, and the camera's horizontal motion adjusts to match that of the ship so that the ship stays in the center of the screen as the camera slowly zooms in. Eventually, the ship stands still relative to us. Finally, the camera ceases moving altogether, leaving the blue ship to pick up apparent speed and sail off the left side of the screen.

This sequence showing Yannakis Manakis's death has several dimensions of ambiguity that fill it with poetry. The assistant is a young man helping Manakis; he is an old man telling the story to us in a voice-over monologue; he is an old man telling the story to A in dialogue. The blue ship is an actual blue ship almost photographed by Yannakis Manakis one day in Salonika; it is a metaphor for Manakis's death; it is a metaphor for Manakis's life, for his vision. The three reels of film are real and could be found; they were real, but they've become irrecoverably lost; they are a fantasy of a dying old man. Yannakis Manakis actually died in the way depicted; we are being shown a stylized poetic interpretation. A is A; A is Manakis. Other ambiguities in this sequence can't be put into words. Some of them are strictly visual. This sequence is as ethereally beautiful as anything that has ever been put on film: in the ever changing light on the palette of blues and blue-grays behind the actors, in the motion (partly in our mind's eye) of the blue ship across the screen, and in the blue ship's final, ghostly disappearance

Some people will find such a sequence, and the film as a whole, too slow and lacking in narrative. Some will find it frustrating to be presented with so many ambiguities without any additional information to resolve them. Personally, although I would not wish every film I see to be this way, I find the drama of the interplay of ideas and images to be exciting enough. I like films that leave me to do some of the thinking for myself.

After the opening sequence, A goes on an episodic, labyrinthine journey of impossible scenes. Narrative is subordinate to the groups of themes involving exile, seeing, history, film as art and as social document, communism and its breakup and the subsequent turmoil in most of the countries of the Balkans.

There are several ways that one might make a film have beautiful photography. One way is to shoot it at a beautiful location, Venice maybe, or the Grand Canyon. Another way is to have a cinematographer who can shoot beautiful pictures regardless of what the director and cast do. Ulysses' Gaze has images that go beyond photography because they have a haunting power that can only come from integration with the rest of the film. They are marvellous in unexpected ways. One scene opens with A and a woman awakening in a cheap hotel room, with a cracked plasticized headboard behind them. I have awoken in many such European rooms but never thinking that one could be photographed to be beautiful but as dumpy as it really is. I have also stood on quaysides in Greece like the one that Yannakis Manakis died on. I wouldn't have tried to take the pictures that I see in Ulysses' Gaze because I would have worried that they would turn out too blue.

The dialogue is often stylized. Characters often speak in words that sound more like a monologue or like the narration in a story written in the first person. Erland Josephson gives his acting a dreamy quality fitting his character, S, and the effect is somewhat visionary. Maia Morgenstern plays the several incompatible versions of A's wife. Her acting is realistic, in comparison, and she plays each of these women with admirable virtuosity. Harvey Keitel plays A well in a stylized fashion appropriate to his dialogue but not as dreamily as Josephson does his.

Admittedly, Ulysses' Gaze is monumental and slow. It is episodic and sometimes harder to understand than it needs to be. It is also a masterpiece with enormous strengths, one that I liked immensely.

from William P. Coleman.
20 June 1998

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