The Dust of Time is Theo Angelopoulos’s second installment in a trilogy that began with 2004’s The Weeping Meadow. While it did make the international festival circuit in 2008/9, I am unaware of any proper release or distribution in North America, either theatrically or on home video (I had to purchase a region 2 DVD and rip it to an mpeg file to add the subtitles).
“The only utopia is the third wing.”
Considering the minimal details and exposition that we are given and how much in The Dust of Time is merely implied, summarizing it is in itself an act of criticism, but might look something like this. After post-WWII Greek Civil War, Eleni (Irene Jacob) fled Greece as a communist finding refuge in Temirtau by way of Toshkent (if you’re like me, don’t even try watching an Angelopoulos movie without Wikipedia and an atlas). In 1953 directly following the death or Stalin, Spyros (Michel Piccoli) slips behind the Iron Curtain under a false identity to reunite with Eleni. The couple is together for what appears to be less than a day before Spyros is found out and the two are sent to separate Siberian prison camps, but not before Eleni becomes pregnant. In her camp, Eleni reunites with a past-acquaintance-turned-lover, Jacob Levi (Bruno Ganz). Spyros is freed in 1956 the same year Eleni sends his son to live with Jacob’s sister Rachel in New York where she will then unite father and son, which also corresponded with the de-Stalinization efforts of the Twentieth Party Congress. Eleni and Jacob remain imprisoned until 1974, and while the two were romantically involved in the prison camp, once freed Eleni is determined to find Spyros and her son; hopelessly in love, Jacob gives up his dream of returning to Israel to follow Eleni to New York. Eleni arrives in New York to find Spyros living with another woman and her son in Canada to avoid the draft. Eventually mother and son unite; Eleni and Spyros re-reunite. The Berlin wall topples a decade and a half later. Jump to late December 1999 just before the end of the millennium. The son is A (Willem Defoe), a filmmaker directing a film that seems very similar to the summary I just provided. In addition to keeping the studio heads at bay, A’s daughter has run away, probably not unrelated to the same reason his wife left him (“My only home was and is the stories I told. Every place else I feel like a stranger. I feel lost.”). And his parents, Eleni and Spyors, arrived in Berlin from New York where they announce their intentions to return to Greece for the first time since Eleni’s expulsion.
Of course the movie doesn’t present the story in so banal and linear a fashion. True to the Angelopoulos aesthetic, past, present, and future all constantly interconnected and even overlapping, echoing Eliot’s dictum that “all time is eternally present.” The opening shot of The Dust of Time is in the film’s present (1999) with character A arriving at Cinecitta Studios in Rome; the second shot is on board a train leaving East Germany in 1953; the third shot is in the present picking up where the first shot left off; the fourth shot is back on the same train in 1953 now approaching Toshkent; then the fifth shot is A reviewing archival film that is being shown in shot 6 in a “state” in Temirtau 1953. When we return to the present in shot 14, it is clear that the couple is the subject of his film and that his daughter shares the same name as the woman, Eleni. That three generations should embody past, present, and future is far from original, but here A and young Eleni are just as much past as matriarch Eleni; the two Eleni’s are just as much present as A, and so on.
At the time of watching The Dust of Time, it was the fourth movie I’d seen by Angelopoulos (in the order I watched them: Landscape in the Mist, The Travelling Players, and The Weeping Meadow; since then I have caught up with Eternity and a Day). So admittedly lacking anything resembling familiarity with his work as a whole, it is clear that there is not a whole lot of new territory being explored here, which I don’t find to be a fault except that it has all been done so much better in his other films.
What I do like about this movie is the way the time-passed and time-passing are always mistakable for one another. When the elder Eleni and Jacob are talking in the Berlin hotel room, it is not always clear if they are in the present or reenacting some past argument. Bruno Ganz certainly needed to be reigned in a little.
With a runtime of 122 minutes, the movie is composed of about 81 shots (there may have been a hidden cut in what I am counting as shot 29), so while the movie had the long takes one expects in an Angelopoulos, I did feel that it was visually less interesting than the other titles I’ve seen.
One shot that does stand out for me takes place on New Year’s Even 1999. Eleni, Spyros, and Jacob walk into a bar…stop me if you’ve heard this one. While Eleni and Jacob order drinks at the bar, Spyros loses himself in a memory (which constitutes just about all the acting required of Michel Piccoli for this film). Spyros finds his way to a piano and keys the wedding march and proceeds to recite his wedding vows. As he turns to go back to the bar we hear dishes breaking in the background. Back at the bar, Eleni, Jacob, and the bartender are not to be seen as Spyros exits. Then a younger Eleni rushes to the door while the same older Spyros comes back to embrace her.
Conventional wisdom is that single takes are done in real time. If this is true here, then real time is a time where “all time is eternally present.”
The film does have a lack of regard for space and I am not quite sure how intentional this is. Defoe’s character A at one point says, “I’m constantly travelling. Sometimes I don’t even know where I am” which might suggest that the intention is to induce in the viewer that same uncertainty. For example, below are three different shots of A’s daughter Eleni’s bedroom. In the top image, we see the room with posters; A has just rushed home from Rome to Berlin hoping to find his daughter still there. The middle image is back at Cinecitta studios in Rome, indicating that the daughter’s story worked it’s way into his movie. Finally the bottom image is of the two Elenis, in what is supposed to be the same room as the top image although it appears to be identical to the set piece.
I do wonder how intentional this is. As a flub, it’s somewhat uninteresting to me, but on an impressionistic level, if he is doing with space the same as he does with time, then that’s fascinating.