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Angelopoulos, Theo. "Alexander the Great" (O Megalexandros)

Monday 24 March 2008, by ps

Greece, 1980







PROD.CO.: RAI2 Italy; ZDF, Germany; ANGELOPOULOS (Greece)

AWARDS: GOLDEN LION and FIPRESCI at the 1980 Venice Film Festival.

In Greek with English subtitles.

In this film, very few things are really what they appear to be, starting with the title. One could expect it to be the story of Alexander of Macedonia, the conqueror, but it is not. The Alexander in this film is a folk hero belonging to the legend, utilized perhaps to represent an authoritarian kind of leftist leader.

The kidnapping of British aristocrats during a costume ball to celebrate the turn of the century corresponds to a similar event in the history of Greece which happened, however, a few decades before. The arrival in the Greek mountains of a group of Italian anarchists is more plausible because there have been similar occurrences in the two countries’ history: Italians fighting to make Greece independent, and anarchists escaping persecution in their homeland and seeking refuge abroad.

The Italian component in the film is probably important because Italian television is one of the producers. Besides the five Italian anarchists played by five real Italian actors, even the main role (Alexander), who should be Greek or Macedonian, was attributed to Gian Maria Volonté, at first, then to Omero Antoniutti, while Giorgio Albertazzi, who first thought that he was going to play the role of the protagonist role, ends up taking the part of the anarchist "leader", with whom he identified, anyway. Because of delays in shooting the film due to bad weather and scarce finances, Albertazzi had to be replaced by Carnelutti.

Some scenes had to be filmed again, but several others that were in the original the script have been eliminated. Angelopoulos has declared that the role of the anarchists was to be more important, but had to be contained. These and other difficulties are documented for us by an article published by William Megalos and written before the film’s release ("The filming of O Megalexandros", The Athenian, July 1980, pp. 22-25). One of the Italian actors went even further to write a 200-page book on the film (Brizio Montirano: Diario Macedune con Anghelopulos sul set di Alessandro il Grande, Milano: Il Formichiere, 1980).

The story unfolds like this: the Italian anarchists show up at a remote village because they are persecuted by the police and they had heard that a commune existed. They are well received by the village school teacher, who himself may be an anarchist but speaks in the name of a group of members representing various shades of socialist currents.
The commune is presented as a free community where the man is king of himself and all people are equal. They are welcome to stay, but they have to abide by the commune’s conditions: perform a useful task, comply with the decisions of the People’s Court, respect the majority’s views, and defend the commune in case of need. Everybody hugs each other, and voilà, the Italian anarchists have joined the commune.

Curiously enough – although probably dictated only by circumstances – a kind of commune had to be established by the people involved in the film (technicians, actors, extras, villagers, etc.) in order to perform tasks such as cooking, gathering firewood and making fires, pushing cars through the mud, removing snow, etc. for the length of the shooting schedule.

The Italian anarchists integrate well into the commune, but they gradually resent the authoritarianism of Alexander the Great. They decide, finally, to leave the group. They sing a lot during their stay, but their final song is interrupted by gunfire. Someone killed them.

Was it the military that surrounded the village? Was it the followers of Alexander the Great? Was it the members of the initial commune?

The film does not answer these questions.

Angelopoulos seems to think they were doomed from the start.

The film, however, is a very complex discourse on power, and maybe also a metaphor for Greek historical-political dilemmas.

The filmmaker, who also conceived also script, presents to us the main trends of 20th Century (which may explain why he postponed some actual historical happenings and makes the film start exactly in 1900) ideologies proposing deliberation of man and society: utopian socialist anarchism, moderate democratic socialism, and authoritarian Marxism.

Each position is illustrated, and it is up to the viewer to decide which one is more palatable to him/herself.

This is another great film by Angelopoulos, filmed in extreme circumstances (the filmmaker and some crewmembers even had to spend a night in jail) but as accurate as was humanly and technically possible, thanks also to astounding cinematography by George Arvanitis.