An off-camera narrator (Theo Angelopoulos) provides the sobering demographics of an ancient village in northern Greece – a population that dwindled from 1,250 people based on a 1939 census to 85 in 1965 – as a passenger bus traverses the remote, mountainous region on an unpaved road and becomes stuck in a water-logged ditch, requiring the few occupants onboard to exit the public transportation and collaborate in throwing assorted rocks and debris into the shallow pool in order to provide traction for the vehicle. An unidentified man (Thanos Grammenos) arrives at the rural town and makes his way through the desolate streets before entering a modest home where he attempts to engage a reticent girl in polite conversation. The apparent stranger then steps outside in order to embrace a woman and her children as they approach the front yard. An estranged introduction by the woman, his wife Eleni (Toula Stathopoulou) to the young girl inside the house reveals that the man is the girl’s father, Costas, who has been away as a guest worker in Germany. The film then freezes to a shot of the reunited family sitting at the dinner table for a meal as the film credits are displayed on screen – an idyllic and hopeful image that soon evaporates with the subsequent episode of the police fact-finding investigation into his death, presumably at the hands of his adulterous wife and her married lover (Yennis Totsicas). Proceeding achronologically and interweaving interviews conducted by an eager news crew (with the reporter played by Angelopoulos) sent into the quiet town in order to follow the breaking news story, the film presents the seemingly mundane events surrounding the death of the returning guest worker and in the process, presents a bleak portrait of the gradual extinction of the Greek village.
Shot in spare and austere, high contrast black and white, Theo Angelopoulos’ appropriately titled first feature film, Reconstruction, is a haunting and incisive chronicle of the endemic depopulation of Greek rural villages during the mid twentieth century that, as the filmmaker would subsequently explore throughout his career, profoundly contributed to the increasing global irrelevance – the ‘dying’ – of Greek culture towards the end of the century. Based on a real-life village incident and shot during the politically restrictive rule of the military junta, the film’s elliptical (if not deliberately evasive) and non-sequential narrative structure conveys a sense of alienation and non-resolution to the unconscionable tragedy that, in turn, illustrates the nation’s estrangement from its own native cultural heritage through years of devastating wars (World War II and the subsequent Civil War), political unrest, and economic destabilization that contributed to the mass exodus of the population – usually working-age men – searching for employment opportunities and a better life in larger cities (primarily, to the more cosmopolitan Athens) or as overseas guest workers (note the contrast in perception through the inhumane treatment of Yorgos by aimless, xenophobic tenants in R.W. Fassbinder’s Katzelmacher). The film-within-a-film structure that is visually repeated in the shots of Costas arriving home near the beginning and end of the film further reinforces the modern day reality of the inescapable, destructive cycles of migration and familial dissolution that continue to erode Greek identity and village life. By paralleling the geographic and moral desolation of a neglected and abandoned wife with the plight of an ancestral rural village, Angelopoulos reflects the contemporary national trauma of cultural uprooting and suppression of collective history.
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