Many of the complaints an outsider might have about Angelopoulos seem applicable here. For what it’s worth, as much as I like him (and I do like him an awful lot) I was never one to completely buy into his aesthetic. Terms like “cold” and “distant” tend to become the first adjectives one forms in their head when watching one of Angelopoulos’s films. I’d argue that this isn’t the case for the work I’ve seen of his from the 1980s onward, but I might not be as vocal when defending this particular film, his second full-length feature and the earliest effort of his that I’ve seen.
The story seems difficult to navigate if only for the general Angelopoulos way of literally photographing the characters from a distance, but it all boils down to an intricate assassination attempt inside a secluded prison. The target is Sofianos, a drug trafficker who is captured for his involvement with an assassination during a political rally. It’s difficult to follow the narrative without doing some kind reading before hand, and even then, I did not have a better understanding of the political climate in Greece during the 1930s outside of your typical view of “a time of change” or whatever. To Angelopoulos’s credit, though, he never really shifts the focus of the film towards the political.
It’s probably a bit too simple to classify Angelopoulos as being an “observant filmmaker.” His camera is certainly observant since even here, in the early stages of his career, it seems to have a mind of its own. Of course, this does not mean it’s necessarily “active” although there is one bizarre tracking sequence towards the end that feels like something out of Olivier Assayas’s playbook. One could draw a correlation between Assayas’s recent “thrillers” (Clean and Demonlover to the epic Carlos) as having the same tendencies as this film. For example, both filmmakers are essentially making “action movies” but manage to keep the context and characterization brief. It might seem odd to call the long-take mindset of Angelopoulos as “elliptical” but he definitely excludes information that, had it been kept, would have just made this a straightforward thriller with really arty direction.
All of these thoughts are coming from one viewing of Days of 36 though and if I’ve learned anything from this recent revisiting of the man’s work (which was indeed spurred on by his unfortunate passing) it’s that his films benefit greatly from multiple viewing. Sure, reading about his films enough will help one “get” it at least in an ideological sense, but when watching Landscapes in the Mist I was finally struck by the power of his poetry. I have loved Angelopoulos since I first saw The Beekeeper but even then there was a sense of watching something “austere.” It sounds crazy but the aforementioned Landscapes in the Mist struck me as almost being Malick-esque in its level of poetry. Perhaps it is that film’s similarity with Days of Heaven but they both have this wistful, aching rhetoric that underscores the aesthetic of the respective filmmakers, despite the fact that stylistically they seem distant.