Landscape in the Mist opens with two pre-teens - a girl and a boy; sister and brother - stepping out of the Greek night and into a railway station to which, we're told, they've come many times before. Clearly, the pair are seekers. But what is it that they seek? The question confounds those they encounter in the course of this nightly homage - and those they cross paths with once they actually take the final step of boarding a train. We know they think their father might be living and working in Germany; we also know, as they don't at first, that this might just be a consoling lie their mother has told them. It is just possible, then, that the children's search is a wild goose chase, and it is one of the film's many understated tragedies that it will take these youngsters practically the entire two-hour running time merely to leave their own country. Still, they go on searching, all the same. So does the camera. So do we.
Over the decade that followed Theo Angelopoulos's 1988 film, arthouse cinema - and the Oscar Foreign Film category, and the Miramax acquisition portfolio - would come to be overrun by cute kids deployed by directors as a means of getting at the 20th century's big themes. The shameless sappiness of Cinema Paradiso, the safe bet of Kolya, the somewhat more astringent The Thief: in these films, the camera adopts a kneehigh-to-a-grasshopper perspective to suggest we are all, to some extent, little ones, naive and/or vulnerable before the sometimes crushing forces of destiny. The central quest in Angelopoulos's film grants its maker access to the back roads of emotion, history and myth; these siblings are as the brother and sister in the same year's Grave of the Fireflies, or those in The Night of the Hunter (particularly when seen drifting upriver), or even Hansel and Gretel, at the mercy of predators, before that. Impossible to underplay the extent to which these characters feel like a continuation: when a troupe of actors appear out of the titular fog, they look very similar to the players of Angelopoulos's 1975 masterpiece The Travelling Players, still wandering, still looking for places to stage Golfo the Shepherdess. (No director in history has ever been more touchingly devoted to the revival of a specific text.)
The quest also proves a means to a picturesque end, allowing the filmmaker to deliver on the first word of that title. Angelopoulos was one of the cinema's greatest location scouts and shooters, and the kids' peregrinations allow him to take in - and show us - the unexpected futurism of Greek railway stations, highways that vary from the spectacularly incomplete to the impossibly lonely, and a procession of small, out-of-the-way, never-before-filmed towns and villages, some frozen in time by snow, as Pompeii was by volcanic ash, others as abandoned as the bergs in Bela Tarr films. (Look closely, and you may be able to spy a sign hanging in every window: gone walking.) This camera gravitates towards beaches that resemble limbos between this world and the next; yet Angelopoulos is just at home in a roadside cafe where two truckers are squaring off over a waitress. He could do profound, but he also understood the fundamental pettiness of this universe, and the people within it.
That landscape increasingly darkens, saddens, as if grey clouds were moving in over the film. The children seem to get no closer to finding their pa, and after an hour of merrily hopping into the backs of strangers' trucks and buses, the runaways' luck is seen to run out in one crushing shot of the girl being dragged into the back of a lorry parked in Greece's drizzliest lay-by. (Maybe it's the suspicious way in which the world now turns, but even a kindly twentysomething actor's interest in the girl seems somehow curious.) Yet we, too, come to feel the need for what the protagonists are setting out for in the first place: protection, some shelter, both from those who would exploit them, and from the rain lashing down on their heads. It is as the actor asks, channelling Rilke: "If I were to shout, who would hear me out of the armies of angels?" (Angelopoulos dangles that question's profoundly humanist corollary: that on this Earth, all we really have is one another.) Suffice to say, the film's seriousness and sincerity shames a lot of what passes for cinema today; think for even an instant of all those children who've set out across Europe in the decades since, in fragile hope of making a better life, and this Landscape becomes extraordinarily moving.
Landscape in the Mist is available on DVD through Artificial Eye.