Hailed as a masterpiece when it was first released in the UK in 1976, this magisterial four-hour epic has rarely been seen since. Perhaps that's because its austere narrative, about a troupe of itinerant theatre actors wandering through Greece during the Nazi invasion, and its aftermath, is so deliberately diffuse that it becomes more of an endurance test than a pleasure.
Without bending to the demands of conventional dramatic narrative, director Theo Angelopoulos offers an epic vision of Greek history. He uses this theatre troupe's attempts to stage a production of folk drama Golfo The Shepherdess as the focus, then spins off to deal with the Nazi occupation, the ensuing post-war infighting between monarchists and Marxists, and a general sense of the dangers of totalitarianism.
Shooting in long takes, eschewing close ups in favour of moving his camera through a series of beautifully choreographed dances through space while the action takes place around - rather than in front of - it, Angelopoulos delivers a fractured film that's more confusing than emotionally involving.
"COLD AND DISTANT"
Even the characters are kept distant. Nameless, quiet and barely even given identities, the travelling players are little more than ciphers - the site on which history's upheavals can be traced. Hardly speaking to one another, or anyone else, they occasionally deliver direct-to-camera monologues, mixing political invective with Greek history and personal angst, in a vague attempt to give this sprawling film some kind of structure.
Like Brecht's plays - in which the aim is not to make the audience identify with the action, but rather to create awareness of the underlying political argument - The Travelling Players is a cold and distant film, unrelenting in its attempt to depict the swirling vortex of history in process.
Inaccessible and imposing, it may be a masterpiece, but it's a hard one to like.
In Greek with English subtitles