The first film of what would be loosely considered Theo Angelopoulos’ Trilogy of Borders, The Suspended Step of the Stork opens to the tumultuous and disconnected stationary long shot of a helicopter hovering over an indistinguishable, formless, dark mass floating lifelessly in an undulating open sea that has been encircled by a small fleet of recovery boats. The voice of a journalist, Alexandre (Gregory Karr) provides a grim context to the disorienting sight, as a group of Asian stowaway asylum seekers, having been refused entry into the country by the government, chose instead to end their lives by jumping into the hostile, open waters rather than be returned to their native land. The provocative image of adriftness, alienation, and disposability, a recurring theme within Angelopoulos’ cinema that is visually anticipated in two iconic sequences in his earlier films – the disembodied sculptural hand towed by helicopter from the sea in Landscape in the Mist, and the aging couple cast out into the sea on a raft in Voyage to Cythera – in turn, serves as a prefiguration of the statelessness, refugeeism, and dispossession created by the institution (and institutionalization) of man-made borders in the film.
On assignment at a military outpost near the Greek-Turkish border (perhaps a documentary on the growing refugee problem, or the inhuman economic and moral conditions of the marginal communities that have developed near the border as a result of the refugees’ status in bureaucratic limbo as unwanted, non-legal residents in the country who, for humanitarian reasons, cannot be compelled to return home), Alexander’s attention is soon diverted from the project after a chance encounter with an Albanian refugee selling potatoes from a produce market on the riverbank, a handsome and distinguished-looking man (Marcello Mastroianni) who bears a striking resemblance to a well-respected statesman, social philosopher, and author who, at the height of his political and creative popularity, abandoned his beautiful, devoted French wife (Jeanne Moreau), walked away from his cabinet position, and disappeared into complete obscurity. Convinced that the refugee is, indeed, the missing statesman, Alexandre seizes an opportunity to embark on what on the surface appears to be a sensational exposé of the man’s strange plight and inscrutable transformation from national leader to marginalized figure, enlisting the aid of his abandoned wife who, despite having moved on with her life, still continues to harbor the wounds of his silence and self-imposed isolation during the final days of their marriage (a profound estrangement that loosely echoes their previous relationship in Michelangelo Antonioni’s La Notte). However, as Alexandre continues to search for clues to the refugee’s real identity, he becomes increasingly haunted with the underlying reasons that led to the statesman’s disappearance itself, a personal quest that would be further intensified by his attraction to an enigmatic young woman (Dora Chrysikou) whose childhood sweetheart remains stranded on the other side of the border, separated by the Evros River.
In examining the psychology of fugue, rootlessness, and self-erasure, Angelopoulos transforms the themes of identity and collective memory into a broader exposition on the absurdity of factionalism, sectarianism, and ethnic cleansing that have not only enabled wide-scale depopulation, migration, and displacement, but more importantly, contributed to an accelerated, selective cultural extinction and disposability (most directly, in Angelopoulos’ (then) observation of the protracted Balkan Wars following the break-up of the former Yugoslavia in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union). Juxtaposed against the recurring image of yellow-jacketed telephone technicians installing new service lines along the desolate frontier (figuratively bringing civilization closer, even in the most remote populations), the stranded refugees’ plight presciently underscores the unwitting upshot of technology and globalism at the end of the twentieth century. It is this paradox of the information age that inevitably defines Alexandre’s unreconciled search for identity and connection in a community of faceless, invisible witnesses of a silent (and silenced) history – a perversion of social ideals that has cultivated, not the intimacy of an egalitarian, interconnected global village, but rather, a culture of exclusion enabled by the creation of artificially constructed borders (a theme of interpenetrating real and metaphysical borders that is similarly woven through Claire Denis’ film, L’Intrus), and that, in defining arbitrary bounds of privilege and entitlement, foments its own cultural genocide through systematic isolation, social stratification, marginalization, and xenophobia.
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