Sometimes late at night, I find myself wondering about the people who witnessed the creation of the airplane. Did the future look brighter to them than it does to us now? Could they feel its warmth, or was it always this blood-chilling?
Theodoros Angelopoulos was a Greek man born in Athens on April 27, 1935. He studied law yet decided to pursue film and began directing at 33 years old. His work is defined by long takes, slow and episodic narratives, themes of humanity, and the influence of his country’s history and culture. Angelopoulos continued making movies until his death in 2012 and would go on to be known as one of the best directors in the history of the medium.
The first of his great Trilogy of Silence, as he himself called it, Voyage to Cythera (1984) follows Spyros, an old communist, inspired by Theo’s own father, as he returns to Greece after 32 years of his exile in the Soviet Union because of his participation in the Greek Civil War.
“I don’t know whether he played the violin”, and “I expected him to be taller,” are what Spyros’ children, Alexandros and Voula, say when he disembarks from the ship that brought him to the country. Time can be such a cruel thing; nothing is ever quite as we expect it to be. The words from the two adults meeting their father for the first time in decades set up well enough what the rest of Voyage to Cythera has prepared.
Spyros fought for the people of Greece against his own government, and that decision has never stopped haunting him. His first meeting with his family is welcoming but awkward at best. People he doesn’t recognize anymore, children he has never known. His first real conversation with his wife after reuniting leaves both of them hurt, as he reveals that he has made another life for himself in faraway Uzbekistan with another family. He was afraid to come back, and his fears were all but proven right; this is his family, but it is not the same family he was forced to leave so many years ago, just as he is not the same man he was then. His tall wide frame, the big coat he often wears that completely alters his silhouette, and the way he carries himself in a Frankenstein’s-monster-esque manner make him appear more like a ghost than a man fully present in the moment.
And that’s because he isn’t fully present. He has been torn apart. Displaced. A citizen of nowhere, beloved by many but understood only by those who share his pain and have undergone his same torture. He might be back in Greece, and he might have another loving family in Uzbekistan, but he will never truly belong anywhere ever again. He will forever be in a different place from where his feet reside and where he lays to rest.
The first ask to his family is for them to visit the old village they used to live at. He is welcomed there by the sounds of the old outlaw code, a series of whistlings used to communicate between the comrades. Off-camera he goes as we hear the whistles, and his family comes out of the car to stare as he talks with his old friend, Panagiotis. Perhaps then, outside the confines of the camera’s reality, he felt a little bit at home.
At the top of a hill, Spyros recognizes an old dog that couldn’t possibly have survived after all this time and then opens his arms wide to embrace his friend in tears. Meeting Argos, the dog, marks one of the instances in this movie where reality breaks to leave space for brief moments of magical realism. The other two times we see this occur happen at the beginning of the film when Spyros arrives at his son’s workplace, and Alexandros follows him all the way to the place where the actual ship his father came in was about to arrive, and then when Alexandros stops in his tracks in the middle of the street to play the piano in the air, his hand movements provoking actual musical notes.
Despite the intuitive nature of these moments, instead of having a more logical explanation, it is not a coincidence where they take place. The first scene of Voyage to Cythera sees Alexandros as a child mocking a police officer and running to his home. Later as an adult we see him still retain some behaviors from his childhood, such as jumping over the lines on the sidewalk. Through the purity of a dog’s company and the innocence of a child, Angelopoulos crafts sincere moments of beauty and hope in the decayed world he presents.
But that optimism for the good of the world is finite. Alexandros grew up, and he, too, has been twisted by the events of his life. After losing his father and being reunited with his mother only after she served time in prison, growing up with a broken, traumatized family has left him unable to deal with the world that surrounds him and with himself. ‘’I often discover, with horror and relief, that I no longer believe in anything. At such times, I return to my body. It’s the only thing that reminds me I’m alive.’’ is what he wrote into a play of his, and it’s made clear these are not simply words to him.
Theodoros would only further explore this corruption in the third film of this trilogy, Landscape in the Mist, where a pair of siblings travel through Europe in search of the father that abandoned them, facing the uncaring world they were born to.
Spyros and Panagiotis walk through the cemetery where so many of the people they fought alongside now lay. Much like the rest of the locations Theodoros chooses for his stories, this place feels desolate and forgotten; crooked and damaged tombstones without anyone to care for them are all that’s left. If the world ever had the opportunity of being good, that potential died with the people who tried to make it so.
The village people, instead, are attempting to make a deal with a big company to sell the land. Voyage to Cythera is the first installment of the Trilogy of Silence…But what happens during the silences? What happens during the silences? During the silences, people forget history. People forget themselves. Spyros is somewhat awakened by this; after being disillusioned with the state he has found the world in, he returns to the one thing he knows as much as he knows himself: his fight. Despite threats of death and acts of violence, he refuses to sign the deal. Ultimately, this serves as an excuse for the government to issue an order of deportation, forcing him out of his homeland once again.
People often think of our history as a continuous line of progress. They couldn’t be more wrong, but, oh, how I wish they were right. We have only become colder with time, strangers to the ones we love, strangers to our own needs and the needs of our spirit. So much technological advancement, yet it has been a long time since it’s done anything to bring us closer together in any meaningful way. Thirty-nine years have passed since Voyage to Cythera was made, and our world’s spiraling descent toward fascism and capitalism only worsens by the day. I am young, but I fear that I will reach old age tired and with little more than broken dreams of a better world that may never come, that I may never see. I know in this, I am not alone. Spyros’ tale shouldn’t feel as close to our current reality as it does.