1970s, Auteurs, Drama, Greek cinema, War

The Travelling Players (1975)

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O Thiassos

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Director/Screenwriter: Theodoros Angelopoulos

By Roderick Heath

Until his accidental death in 2012, Theodoros Angelopoulos was regarded as one of the best filmmakers in the world, and stood as the dominant figure of Greek cinema since the mid-1970s. Angelopoulos was also the embodiment of an ideal of cinema quite different to the usual, as a maker of slow, disorienting, heartrending portraits of national histories, replete with long takes and languorous camera movements that made Andrei Tarkovsky look like Michael Bay. Angelopoulos would only admit to two main influences, Orson Welles and Kenji Mizoguchi. His approach arguably also took up where Hungarian master Miklos Jancso left off in experimenting with staging action before the camera as a series of carefully choreographed, expressive tableaux on films like Red Psalm (1972), although Angelopoulos’s detached, wandering camera matched to variably lost and assailed characters was ultimately quite different to Jancso’s dance-like synergies. Directors who have clearly absorbed and experimented with Angelopoulos’s style include people as different as Hou Hsiao-hsien, Alexander Sokurov, and Alfonso Cuaron. Originally a law student, after a stint of military service and a spell at the Sorbonne Angelopoulos switched to studying film, and after a stint working as a film critic for a socialist newspaper upon returning to Greece, made his feature directing debut with Reconstitution (1970). Days of ’36 (1972) marked the first of the several themed trilogies in his oeuvre, leading the “trilogy of history” which would also encompass The Travelling Players and The Hunters (1977).

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Amongst his later films, Ulysses’ Gaze (1995) would take on the then-raging war in the former Yugoslavia. Angelopoulos was reportedly infuriated by being beaten out by Emir Kusturica’s similarly-themed Underground for the Palme d’Or that year, but as if in compensation Eternity And A Day took the top prize three years later. Angelopoulos’ early career coincided with the infamous “Regime of the Colonels,” the military dictatorship that descended upon Greece in 1967, a year before he shot his first short film, and ended just before The Travelling Players was released. That experience galvanised Angelopoulos’ leftist politics and determination to depict through art the history of dislocation, oppression, and violence that had gripped Greece and its region for much of the mid-twentieth century. Greece, long before it became the poster child for first world economic blight following the Global Financial Crisis in the past decade, had suffered badly from tides of history, particularly during the Nazi occupation of World War II and the period immediately after, when it became a proxy battleground for superpowers as Britain and the US backed efforts to suppress Communist partisans during an intermittent civil conflict, and the concurrent diaspora of people fleeing the country.

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Angelopoulos circled back to the period for his second-last completed film, Trilogy: The Weeping Meadow (2004), acknowledging how deep the wounds of that time still ran in the national psyche, whilst some of his other works dealt with the bemusement of people of his generation before younger inheritors. Days of ’36 had dealt with the pre-war regime of Ioannis Metaxas, who rose to power and tried to model his authoritarian regime on Mussolini’s. The Travelling Players, whilst nominally commencing in 1953, quickly and invisibly circles back to the waning days of the Metaxas regime and the start of country’s war with Fascist Italy. The film commences with one of Angelopoulos’ essential images, of a group of random people standing by their suitcases, avatars of all those dumped by history. In this case, however, the group are professionally itinerant, the actors of the title, a company who specialise in performing the 1893 pastoral verse drama Golfo the Shepherdess, in search of a stage. A snatch of voiceover explains that the ranks of the players have changed since before the war, with younger actors taking the place of those missing, but as they walk through the town of Aegion on the way to their lodgings they move back in time, so the players are essentially now playing the people whose roles they subsumed.

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The troupe pass by banners and boosters pumping up the post-war government of Alexandros Papagos, but by the time they arrive in the town centre, a man on a motorcycle is announcing Goebbels’ arrival on diplomatic mission, some fifteen years earlier. The players settle into the city playhouse and begin rehearsing, with young Electra (Eva Kotamanidou) uncertainly steps into her mother’s shoes in playing Golfo. During the night Electra wanders the courtyard, catching sight of her mother Clytemnestra (Aliki Georgouli) in bed with her lover, Aegisthos (Vangelis Kazan), who is also the troupe’s token fascist, whilst her brother Orestes (Petros Zarkadis) returns from military service and joins with his father Agamemnon (Stratos Pahis) and fellow actor Pylades (Kiriakos Katrivanos) in anticipating Communist resistance to Metaxas. Pylades usually plays Golfo the Shepherdess’s romantic lead, the shepherd Tassos, although Orestes sometimes takes the role when he’s with the troupe. An old woman (Nina Papazaphiropoulou) is the company’s repository of old folk songs, whilst an old man (Giannis Fyrios) is their accordion-squeezing accompanist. Clashing displays of allegiances occur as some fascist militiamen drill outside the playhouse whilst the troupe breakfast; Pylades is irritated and Aegisthos responds by standing on the table and singing a fascist anthem. Soon after, some plainclothes policemen turn up at a performance, chase Pylades, beat him in the street, and drag him away to exile.

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As the character names signal, The Travelling Players borrows a loose narrative structure by hinging on a variation on the legends that were the basis for Aeschylus’ Oresteia trilogy, in which the children of Agamemnon avenged their father’s murder by their mother and her lover by slaying them both. Angelopoulos initially conceived of this structure as a way to fool the dictatorship’s censors as to what kind of film he was making. Such fragments of plot are used less to engage on the traditional level of psychological analysis and dramatic impetus than to provide occasional, recognisable landmarks to orientate by. It resonates on several levels, nonetheless, as the characters are obliged to fill roles in the eternal roundelay of Greek political life, a clash of schematic political outlooks payed out inevitably and brutally on a domestic level: the actors inhabit social and historical entities and exemplars as well as ephemeral identities. The mighty tradition of Greek theatre is likewise invoked, although the players themselves offer less exalted fare. The play the troupe dedicates their lives to playing reflects a romanticised evocation of the Greek landscape and pastoral stereotypes, albeit one that ends with bodies piled up in tragic fashion. The constant interruption and despoiling that afflicts attempts to stage Golfo the Shepherdess become the closest thing Angelopoulos offers to a running joke, albeit one that sets up an essential aspect of his art. During the first performance, some fascist goons swoop across the stage to bundle up Pylades. During the second, an air raid breaks out. A third sees two people shot dead on stage, life and art virtually indistinguishable.

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Angelopoulos’ characters don’t dominate or compel the story in the traditional sense. They’re mostly witnesses to and fools of fortune in the midst of an age of horror. The early scene where Angelopoulos’ camera roves the playhouse courtyard establishes his peculiar, elusive aesthetic, as Electra is glimpsed wandering about disconsolately, noticing her father left alone in his bed and weeping after following sounds of sexual passion until she sees her mother in bed with Aegisthos. We’re immersed in a little nocturnal universe where the feel for setting – the creaking wood of the building and sheltered nooks and vantages apt for a play in themselves – is as important as the people wandering about it in their little zones of sullen anger and passion. And yet every scene is charged with invocation of a specific emotional state, an overarching weltschmerz occasionally interrupted by flashes of absurdity and collective joy. The Travelling Players is as much a poetic attempt to recapture the flavour of the Greece of Angelopoulos’s childhood as it is a portrait of that past’s drama, so he sensitises the viewer to ephemeral experiences as when Agamemnon delivers a lengthy, weary-souled monologue whilst seated in a trundling, rattling, damp-ridden railway carriage. Agamemnon’s monologue recounts his exile as a young man from his birthplace in Ionia during the advance of Turkish nationalists, when he was separated from his family and never saw them again, instead finding a place in Greece as a refugee.

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The use of the antiquated device of the monologue, which recurs several more times in the film, each time with a different character, is another of Angelopoulos’ nods to the metatheatrical. He usually employs it to fill the viewer in on specific incidents that define both the experiences of his characters and also the history he’s portraying. Agamemnon invokes the tragedies of the 1922 war with the Turks; later Electra describes the “Dekemvriana” street clashes that helped spark the Civil War. Pylades recounts the brutality dealt out to him and other prisoners. Notably, Clytemnestra, who delivers the first in the film, meditates instead not on such worldly business but on days when Orestes was a boy who needed her, a far cry from her current situation as glorified vagabond with her husband and her lover, and whose daughters who hate her, ranks Orestes will soon enough join. When Agamemnon joins the army to fight the Italians, she laughs at the sight of him in a uniform until he slaps her in anger. Momentarily shocked, she splays out on their bed as if wishing him to fuck her, perhaps more in taunting than in invitation; he storms out angrily instead and Aegisthos uses it as the right moment to properly lay claim to her. After the Nazis intervene on the Italians’ behalf and occupy the country, Agamemnon joins the burgeoning resistance, as does Orestes and Pylades. Some German soldiers raid the playhouse in the night and make a show of searching for a supposed English soldier but instead net Agamemnon: Electra realises her mother and Aegisthos ratted him out to get rid of him once and for all.

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Around these events Angelopoulos stages many of his signature sequences emphasising communal rather than individual experience. When the ragged band that is the player troupe makes one of their periodic returns to Aegion, they are amused to be caught up in a celebratory street parade during the surge of patriotic zeal upon the start of the war with the Italians. Angelopoulos films citizens marching along the beach in a show of unity before winding through the city streets, waving flags and singing en masse. Such shows of mass demonstration recur throughout the film but in fatefully smaller, partisan bands, with a rising sense of menace as a threat of violence lurks behind every gesture. Angelopoulos shoots much of the film very early in the morning, with a chilly blue light in the air and pinkish hues in the clouds. This seems a choice in part to take advantage of the empty city streets as Angelopoulos choreographs his complex shows of communal action, but he also seems clearly in love with the raw, world-being-born atmosphere. As the war takes a firmer grip and an authoritarian mood reasserts itself, Electra is followed in the street by an officer who follows her into the playhouse and attacks her with arrogant prerogative. Electra fends him off by ordering him to strip of as by way of an erotic overture: in a hilarious vignette, Angelopoulos films him as get completely naked and stands in macho confidence, only to shamefully cover his genitals when Electra suddenly turns and leaves him alone, all his power stolen.

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This scene soon has its antistrophe of humiliation as transaction, as wartime privation bites hard. To get a bottle of wine for the troupe to share for dinner, Electra’s younger sister Chrysothemis (Maria Vassiliou) strips down and sings for a rich merchant with a large wine cellar as he masturbates in a rocking chair. As she leaves his house he’s promptly shot dead by a pair of resistance fighers, and Chrysothemis returns to place the bottle of wine on the table in perfect calm, well used already to the surreal twists of fate defining their lives. Angelopoulos even gives this moment a flourish of theatrical underlining as he pulls the camera back through the troupe’s painted rustic scenery. As the troupe assemble to leave Aeginos for the season, Angelopoulos films them from a high vantage as they sing a bawdy song with renewed spirits, descending a winding road amidst a snow-crusted landscape. But the moment of cheer is instantly dispelled as they’re confronted by bodies hung from a tree; dispirited and famished, the players are reduced to trying to catch a solitary chicken they spy on the snow, a moment of astounding deadpan comedy. The players fare no better once they board a bus, which gets pulled over by German soldiers, and all the passengers into an old fort they use as an encampment, plainly intending the execute them as retaliation for partisan attacks. Another note of bleak humour resounds as Aegisthos advances from the pack of prisoners, pleading in fractured German, “Me comrade!”

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Fortunately a raid by partisans forestalls a massacre and the prisoners sprint away whilst the warriors fight, although Angelopoulos doesn’t shift his camera’s gaze from a rough-hewn brick wall, conveying the fight instead with sound and flashing explosions. Angelopoulos even seems to have a totemic fascination with that wall, as a stand-in for the many such backdrops used for firing squads during the course of the war. As dawn rises on the ruins, the freed prisoners linger in fatigue and confusion, until partisans and demonstrators flood into the place, celebrating the departure of the Germans: the Nazi flag is dumped in the harbour, and the populace gathers in the town square in a show of political unity, flags of various allegiances waved until a bomb explodes, and a street battle between different factions erupts, Nazis, Communists, liberals, and Allied forces. The players are still stranded amidst all this, sneaking through the streets and trying to get back to the playhouse, cowering and avoiding the various battles, exchanges of gunfire accompanied by bellowed anthems. As they reach the beachfront the players are stopped by a patrol of British soldiers, who seem at first threatening as they search the players. The British, realising they’re dealing with actors, get them to stage Golfo the Shepherdess and provide a grateful audience on the beach sand, and even reciprocate by providing a rousing chorus of “It’s A Long Way To Tipperary.” But the happy moment is interrupted as a sniper shoots one of the soldiers dead.

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Interruption, as evinced in this scene, is an essential motif in The Travelling Players, as first introduced through the disruptions to the play and bleeding into life. Moments where nascent connection and outbreaks of festivity promising fertile times seem possible are rudely and cruelly terminated by eruptions of violence and volatility. Rather than the end of strife, the liberation proves to be the moment for repaying old debts and hatching out long-delayed projects. Electra heads out to find Orestes, who is hiding with some fellow Communist partisans, and brings him back to the playhouse to execute justice upon Clytemnestra and Aegisthos. This is a literal moment in the drama but also one that reverberates metaphorically, as the young Greeks attempt a political exorcism of their state by wiping out the corrupt generation, just as their legendary forbears strived to prove themselves worthy of their lineage and to enforce cosmic justice, even as they invite the same force to fall upon them. Confronting them on stage during performance, Orestes shoots them both dead. The audience, thinking all this is part of the performance, delivers rapturous applause: all barriers between performance and life, political theatre and standard drama, are dissolved.

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Electra’s description of the Dekemvriana reports, by contrast, identifies a stage-managed aspect to seemingly random and chaotic events, accusing the British commander, Alistair Scobie, of contriving a clash between left and right factions to spark war and justify intervention. Angelopoulos’ analysis of history revolves a similar line of inquiry to one Luchino Visconti pursued on The Leopard (1963), as he tries to comprehend why his country seemed doomed to see history repeat and the chance for genuine popular government constantly stymied. He diagnoses it as lurking behind a pretence to freedom that’s actually carefully doctored: democracy is acceptable as long as democracy doesn’t choose a radical alternative. Angelopoulos’ least subtle side is his political facet, entirely understandable given the moment of the film’s making as The Travelling Players mediates a baleful attitude of accusation and displaced rage. But Angelopoulos mediates it with his sense of humanity. His fascists, radicals, and foreign interventionists are all entirely human, often sympathetic in moments of absurdity or vulnerability: all become victims to a certain extent. The course of the age is etched upon Electra’s face as she becomes ever more stern and cold.

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The relative minimalism of The Travelling Players as visual experience – it contains only about 80 distinct shots spread over its nearly four-hour running time – is belied to a great extent by the vitality Angelopoulos achieves with camera mobility and staging, albeit a vitality that leaves the viewer unmoored at times. The distance between actors and camera and absence of dialogue niceties renders some players hard to identify. Most directors give clear identification of players and subdivide sequences with a multiplicity of shots and edits to construct context; Angelopoulos’ stand-offish approach beholds all but also leaves the viewer to scramble to construct context. Part of this is a result of Angelopoulos’s desire to unify theme with style. He’s portraying a national experience and his characters are merely localisations of that experience, although they’re allowed to register sharply as beings of behaviour. Their experience is one of constant disorientation and shock as the rules of their existence are constantly rewritten on the fly.

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This is an expressive universe always in flux, desperately trying to find form and locus, but so often failing. Even when the scene falls becalmed, the effect conjures a constant sense of anxious anticipation. The restlessness of the aesthetic doesn’t entirely find resolve until the very last shot, but that shot also signifies another link in an ouroboros chain. The build-up to the killing of Clytemnestra and Aegisthos is one of the great movie sequences, as Angelopoulos precedes Electra and her summoned assassins through the streets with an epic tracking shot, a noirish scene where light and dark are at war and the aim not entirely clear until the climax is reached. Electra advances with a grim and steady pace, like a gunfighter, but the actual gunmen scurry through the shadows. The tension is punctured by a gang of gleeful revellers spilling out a tavern and dancing in the street: inchoate eruptions of joy are just as capable of intruding upon acts of evil as vice versa, but not as able to head them off. This is the sort of touch Angelopoulos often employs to escape the aridness that sometimes afflicts directors who mimic his style.

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After achieving her revenge, Electra enters her mother’s room and puts on her blood-red nightgown, as if now assuming the role of matriarch and temptress at once. The price Electra pays proves to be cruel, as heavies wearing suits and clown masks arrive and take her captive. As with the shot of the brickwork ruins, a scene in which right-wing punishers come to drag Electra away has come off sees Angelopoulos linger on an empty foyer, listening to rather than looking at the assault: the portrayal of intrusion and assault is intensified in an unexpected fashion. Fascist pals of Aegisthos knowing full well Electra and Orestes killed him and her mother, the gang hold Electra splayed on the floor of a deserted café and rape her, demanding she tell them where Orestes is. Electra holds out despite her brutalisation, and she’s dumped on the outskirts of town. Picking herself up, Electra launches into her monologue. Well before she marries, Chrysomethis takes her leave of the troupe, pausing to share a long, charged, searching look with her sister across a hallway, making it plain that Electra’s killing of their mother was a step too far for her sister; meanwhile, echoing up from below is a schoolboy’s lesson in Greek history evoking heroic moments of the long-gone days of rebellion against the Turks.

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The use of actors as the linchpin of Angelopoulos’ parable invokes artistic culture as one aspect of national identity, its perpetuation and also its mutability, as the various players are obliged to play new parts in accord with the changing times. The players sustain a version of Greece in their work that’s scarcely related to the Greece they live in, although the notes of high-flown romanticism and personal tragedy glimpsed in it certainly still seem to engage with the general spirit of place: it’s a place always torn between spectacular vistas of the soul and squalid traps of the flesh. The troupe also specialises in singing folk songs and performance styles that maintain appeal to an audience that needs them identify themselves. Chrysomethis’ song before the furiously wanking merchant even seems to register an erotic dimension to that shared imbuing of identity, as she assumes the ironic part of the eternal innocent Golfo, the sweet young thing at once left intact but also reconfigured as masturbatory idol. Such cultural totems are definers of national inclusion, even if sometimes they threaten to also become its tombstones, markers of a fixed and unyielding canon that cannot evolve. The Communists in the troupe are pals with an exiled Spanish poet (Grigoris Evangelatos). Electra and Pylades visit him late in the film, and listen to him pining for his own nation lost to fascist hegemony, with an underlying suggestion that the poet is always an exile, from the past, from idylls, from unrealised ways of being.

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Late in the film a clash of cultures that could also create synthesis is deftly described as Chrysothemis marries an American soldier. The troupe celebrate with his fellow soldiers at a reception on the beach. The elders of the troupe insist on singing a traditional wedding song, a song the Yank’s jazz-playing pals insist on taking up and radically changing, much to the bewilderment and displacement of the elders. This vignette signals Angelopoulos understands transformations are inevitable, but he also feels for the offended spirit of the classical culture as well as that of the moment, which is represented by Chrysothemis’ adolescent son, who sits silent and surly through the wedding ceremony in fuming resentment for his mother marrying one of many invaders he’s seen in his short life. Finally he stands and drags the tablecloth off, walking down the beach with the cloth trailing behind him like the forlorn standard of a defeated cause. The notion of culture as warzone recurs throughout particularly as the various political camps constantly communicate, disseminate, and clash through their songs. Angelopoulos keeps in mind the way such songs, delivered lustily by choruses of massed faithful, help keep political movements rooted in the culture about them and unifies them with shared reflexes.

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The Civil War zeitgeist is illustrated when Angelopoulos presents a scene in a dance hall where the patrons eventually split into two camps and begin duelling with songs, a scene that presents an eloquent lampoon of the famous Marseillaise scene in Casablanca (1942; a film Angelopoulos would again nod to in The Hunters). The impasse seems won for the lefties when the band singer gets her fellows to blast out “In The Mood” whilst she sings bawdy new lyrics mocking Scobie, until a royalist shoots a gun in the air. All the couples promptly depart, leaving only a gang of virtually indistinguishable reactionaries in suits and hats to command the band and start dancing with each-other. This is Angelopoulos’ last, most devastating joke aimed at the fascist spirit, framing it as one that gradually denudes the nation of anything except a hall of mirrors for bullies. This cabal files out of the hall in the early morning, parading through the streets, bawling out an anthem in which they promise not to shed Greek blood, only that of traitors, and pass by a speechifying politician, making clear that the election has been carefully shorn of real democratic meaning.

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This segues into a bizarre spectacle as a band of troubadours march and play before a jeep loaded with British soldiers, one of whom stands with two severed heads in his hands, whilst Orestes and other captured insurgents are marched through the streets to be imprisoned. We’re back now in a world Aeschylus could certainly understand, one of political messaging written directly in blood. A bleak circularity is underlined as they prisoners are loaded onto a boat and taken to the same island to be imprisoned where the Metaxas regime shipped its enemies. When Pylades is released after signing a denunciation of the radical cause, he’s a shamed and damaged man, but his recounting of the sufferings he and others were put through makes clear the impossibility of putting up a stand in the face of such dehumanisation. Finally Electra is called to the prison to collect the body of Orestes, who’s been executed without anyone being told. As the troupe bury him, they give him a round of applause, a farewell for an actor who’s played his role to the limit. The film’s very end presents a note of uneasy peace at least temporarily restored with a new generation flourishing, as the troupe return to work in the midst of the ’52 election campaign, the face of the latest uniformed conqueror emblazoned on posters around town. Electra helps her nephew prepare for taking over the role of Tassos. Angelopoulos films him through a gap in a curtain as he assumes the traditional opening pose, his head out of sight. The player has become abstract entity, the role eternal.

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1960s, Comedy, Drama, Greek cinema

Zorba the Greek (1964)

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Director/Screenwriter: Michael Cacoyannis

By Roderick Heath

My father Douglas Heath died late in 2018 at the age of 71. Dad was a lifelong cinephile. Many of the films he held in fierce affection were movies he saw during his late teens and twenties, a time when he was often homeless and constantly adrift in life, but also intellectually voracious and consuming culture in any way he could. He told me he knew my mother was the woman for him when he took her to see Peter Brook’s Marat/Sade (1967) at a revival screening and she loved it (a previous girlfriend had walked out during the opening credits). Later in life when asked what his favourite movie was, he tended to name one of two films as his favourite. One was the Robert Wise-directed, Val Lewton-produced The Body Snatcher (1945), which he held in particular esteem in part because of its dreamlike evocation of the Scotland he’d been forced to leave as a child when his father decided to emigrate. But the movie he most consistently named was Michael Cacoyannis’ Zorba the Greek. It’s not hard for me to see why Dad was so particularly passionate about Cacoyannis’ film. Like Zorba, my father had done every job known to humanity, could make friends in an empty room, had talents he wouldn’t sell, and those he did usually left him rolling amidst the wreckage wondering what went wrong. I remember the first time I watched the film with him, as a kid, and being confused at the switchbacks of high tragedy and knockabout comedy throughout. I asked him what kind of movie this was. Dad responded, “It’s life.”
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Cacoyannis’s oeuvre in general and Zorba the Greek in particular perhaps need revival these days. Alongside American blow-in Jules Dassin, Cacoyannis captured the world’s attention for Greek film, well before the arrival of Theo Angelopoulos and the current brace of figures like Yorgos Lanthimos and Rachel Athina Tsangari. If Zorba the Greek still has any cultural cachet it’s certainly thanks to its famous theme by composer Mikis Theodorakis, which became emblematic for the post-WWII Greek diaspora and introduced something of the spirit of Greek rembetiko music to the world at large. Ironically the theme’s popularity might have done the movie few favours, perhaps making it seem like escapist exotica from another age along with the likes of Black Orpheus (1959). Cacoyannis’ reputation meanwhile never quite recovered from the bruising reception to his follow-up to Zorba the Greek’s great success, The Day The Fish Came Out (1967), a film which, in spite of its gutsiness in trying to be a queer-themed comedy at a time when that was still pretty outre, still can’t even claim cult status. But Cacoyannis’ career also included great, highly underappreciated adaptations of Euripides, including Elektra (1962) and The Trojan Women (1971), and he reunited with Zorba the Greek star Alan Bates in the early 2000s for a version of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard.
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The film was an adaptation of the novel The Life and Times of Alexis Zorba by Nikos Kazantzakis, (called Zorba the Greek in English-language editions), who had earned international interest for contemporary Greek writing up until his death in 1957. Kazantzakis’ art was built around apparently contradictory precepts, contradictions that gave his books their feverish sway. As a Marxist writer Kazantzakis wanted to dig into the authentic character of Greece’s working and peasant classes, and he initially annoyed cultural watchdogs by writing in demotic or popular modern Greek. But Kazantzakis was also compelled by a defiantly personal religious sensibility, which gave birth to his other best-known book, The Last Temptation of Christ, filmed by Martin Scorsese in 1988: the infamy that met Scorsese’s film had already been anticipated by the reaction of religious authority to the novel. Zorba the Greek was Kazantzakis’ attempt to summarise the vitality of the national character, so long buffeted by poverty and oppression since the ancient glory days, presented through the title character who’s uneducated but possesses great wisdom after a long, hard-knock life, and sufficient unto himself. Somewhat ironically, the character was bound to become synonymous with the Mexican-Irish actor cast in the film role, Anthony Quinn.
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Quinn was another man who identified deeply with the character nonetheless, as an actor who’d lifted himself out of a childhood of grinding poverty through creative talent and achieved a career as one of Hollywood’s perennial supporting players, in large part thanks to his ready capacity to play any ethnicity under the sun. Quinn owed some of his early career traction to marriage to Cecil B. DeMille’s adopted daughter Katherine, and the filmmaking titan gave Quinn a lot of work, eventually producing Quinn’s lone directorial outing, a remake of his father-in-law’s The Buccaneer (1958). Quinn eventually captured two Oscars in the mid-1950s for Viva Zapata! (1952) and Lust For Life (1956), playing the more degraded brother of the folk hero in the former and Paul Gauguin opposite Kirk Douglas’ Vincent Van Gogh in the latter. But it wasn’t until Federico Fellini cast him in La Strada (1954) that Quinn gained traction as a leading man and became a popular figure in European as well as Hollywood film. Often cast as a Latin roué in the ‘30s and ‘40s, the grizzled and thickening Quinn became exalted for his ability to play strong, earthy, eruptive personalities, usually with a brutish streak, who thrive at the expense of the more neurotic, delicate, or victimised people they orbit. By playing Zorba, Quinn tried to revise his screen persona in inhabiting a similar role who nonetheless tries to pass on some of talent for life to others.
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Cacoyannis laid specific claim to the material with his emphases. Cacoyannis came from Cyprus and his father had been closely involved the British administration of the island at the time. Cacoyannis spent much of his youth in Britain, including a stint in the RAF during World War II, and so the novel’s narrator and viewpoint character Basil became a half-Greek, half-English intellectual trying to get back in touch with his roots. A subplot involving his ill-fated romance with a local widow was emphasised and refashioned into a tale within the tale close in nature to one of the classical Greek tragedies sporting a female figure of titanic suffering Cacoyannis was so compelled by. Basil, played by Bates, is on the way to Crete, having inherited a small property there that belonged to his father incorporating a seaside shack and a disused lignite mine. When the ferry to Crete is delayed by a storm, Basil waits with other passengers in the terminal; Cacoyannis offers the subtly weird touch of the sound of the storm abating as Basil senses a strange presence, and notices Zorba staring through the fogged glass. Zorba, on the lookout for an opportunity, quickly attaches himself to Basil, offering to serve him in any capacity he requires. Zorba seems initially a sort of vulgar, unctuous grotesque borne out of the storm, but Basil quickly takes a shine to his energy and gains increasing respect for him as he reveals surprising turns of personality, like his refusal to offer his talent for playing the santuri: “In work I am your man, but in things, like playing and singing, I am my own – I mean free.” Basil employs Zorba specifically to get the mine working again, and they board the ferry together.
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The corner of Crete where Basil’s land is proves poverty-stricken and defined by a finite balance the two arrivals find themselves doomed to disturb. The two men spend their first night in the town in a crumbling guest house amusingly styled the Hotel Ritz, owned by Madame Hortense (Lila Kedrova), an aging former dancer from Parisian nightclubs and courtesan who airily regales them with accounts of her once-wild life. She dances saucily with both men, although it’s Zorba who ends up in bed with her, after Basil, with the heedlessness of youth, humiliates her when he can’t help but laugh at her increasingly overripe anecdotes. After setting up home in the shack on Basil’s property, he and Zorba hire some workers and tackle the mine, but find the wooden props are too badly rotten to risk starting operations, after Zorba is almost buried alive twice. Spying a large forest down the coast, Zorba travels there and finds it’s owned by a monastery; after befriending the monks, he hits upon a plan to use their lumber to rebuild the mine, requiring a large zipline to be built down the side of a mountain. Basil sinks the last of his capital into supporting Zorba’s plan, whilst Zorba, who considers passion a veritably holy thing, in turn encourages Basil to romance a young and well-to-do widow (Irene Papas) who’s the object of desire for every man in the village, but only the young stranger has a chance with her after he aids her gallantly.
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Zorba the Greek revolves around fundamental oppositions, represented most immediately by Basil and Zorba, the difference between head and heart, reason and instinct, proletarian and intellectual, modernity and archaic lifestyles. Basil’s cautious and thoughtful manner stands in near-perfect opposition to Zorba’s gregarious, life-greedy sensibility, but the two men become inseparable precisely because they’re such natural foils, and has something to offer the other. Basil’s stiff Anglo-Saxon half wants to steer clear of intense and potentially unstable situations, whilst Zorba believes that’s the only way to go: “Living means to take off your belt and look for trouble.” The essence of Kazantzakis’ book, a dialogue of values and viewpoints between two long alienated ways of approaching the world represented by two mismatched yet amicable avatars, comes through. Zorba has plenty of literary antecedents, of course, as the voice of common wisdom, stretching back to Hamlet’s graveyard digger. Zorba the Greek never proposes that Zorba is a saintly character, although he also has aspects of a holy fool: he’s a sexist whoremonger and spendthrift, given to expansive inspirations and notions that don’t ever quite seem thought through. The main lesson he teaches Basil is that tragic moments in life can’t be avoided, and it makes more sense to celebrate living as something sufficient in itself than to live in fear of consequence or search for absurd designs behind it all.
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Zorba’s own melancholy history is grasped at intervals, as he memorably answers Basil question whether he ever had a family with the admission, “Wife – children – the full catastrophe.” Later, after one of his frenetic moments of incantatory dancing, he confesses to Basil that he danced the same way after his young son died. In a drolly comedic sequence, he becomes something like a literal Pan figure, as he goes to take a look at the monastery’s forest and scares the hell out of some of the monks when they find him hiding, so filthy from his forays in the mine they think he’s a literal devil rather than his mere advocate. Zorba plays this to his advantage as all the monks come out to hunt the demon only to finish up getting drunk with him. Zorba pronounces, with dubious theology if certain feeling, that the only sin God won’t forgive is if “a woman calls a man to her bed and he does not come.” Zorba gets along like a house on fire with the lusty, romantic Hortense, who subsists in a bubble of melancholic recollection of her glory days as exalted concubine for warriors and statesmen, an embodiment of forgotten belle époque and spirit of sensual exaltation who remembers being bathed in champagne by her harem of naval officers who then proceeded to drink the liquor off her body. But Zorba has no intention of marrying again or settling down, taking up with a young tart when he goes to Chania to buy tools and parts for his project. Basil semi-accidentally commits Zorba to marrying Hortense when she insists on hearing the contents of a letter he writes his friend, substituting romantic feelings for Hortense for Zorba’s actual boasts of erotic adventuring.
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When Kazantzakis wrote his novel he was trying to bridge the ways Greeks had of looking at themselves, and to forge a new literary zone for himself and followers to inhabit. When Cacoyannis made his film, he faced the task of making a relatively esoteric piece of regional portraiture interesting to international viewers. Cacoyannis had been directing films since 1953’s Windfall in Athens, but with Zorba the Greek caught a similar wind to what had made Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960) and Dassin’s Never on Sunday (1960) big worldwide hits. Cacoyannis absorbed the new lexicon of New Wave cinema, as Zorba the Greek is replete with jump cuts, zoom shots, and interludes of hand-held shooting, and took to the latter technique in particular as a way of getting close to his characters and evoking their extreme emotions. Over and above that, Cacoyannis might as as well have been trying to reconcile principles of early ‘60s art cinema style with more traditional theatrical understandings of performance and character. Moreover, Zorba’s unpretentious and expansive sensibility repudiated the navel-gazing tenor of the Italian “alienation” mode and the hyperintellectualised aspects of the New Wave, and anticipated the oncoming age of the counterculture, when Kazantzakis’ writing would find many new fans.
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Cacoyannis’ interest in behaviour as an object of study in itself distinguished his work from much other filmmaking of the period however, and laid down a blueprint that countrymen like Angelopoulos and Lanthimos would explore in their own diverse ways. Cacoyannis stands off for long stretches to watch Quinn or Bates in character eddying in moments of private compulsion and eccentricity, as in a scene in which the bored and bothered Basil tries falteringly to recreate some of Zorba’s exultant dance moves, Zorba’s own seduction of Hortense. Scenes of rollicking comedy, reminiscent of the likes of Rossellini and Buñuel, retain the same method, in Zorba’s encounter with the monks, and engaging in teasing sensual overtures with the young prostitute. When Zorba returns from drinking with the monks, he starts dancing in Basil’s shack, confronting his friend with the near-deranged force of his passion and need to unfetter the forces straining within him, and some wandering musicians, seeing Zorba on the move, start playing to whip him up and drive him on. Quinn and Cacoyannis locate something disquieting, even menacing, in this scene, as the camera reels about the room with Quinn and captures something noir-like in the heavy shadows and increasingly haggard, frantic look of Zorba. Even after Basil chases off the musicians Zorba keeps dancing and the fugue only climaxes when Zorba collapses exhausted on the sand and narrates to Basil the story of how he danced just this way after his son died. Zorba alchemises both physical and mental passion into direct expression, moving into a state of being without past or future.
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Basil’s situation, trapped between languages and adrift in a place where little of meaning is actually spoken aloud anyway, except by Zorba, ironically gave Cacoyannis licence to play much of the film as a kind of silent movie or theatrical pantomime, with dashes of classical theatre and ballet incorporated as well. Such method is plain in the humorous sequences but also defines the most crucial dramatic moments. The sequence when the widow makes her first significant appearance unfolds almost entirely in silence, as she chases her escaped goat only to find several of the village men have herded it inside a tavern to hide it, vibrates with an evocation of repressed lust and hatred turning to a toxic stew, as the widow scans the men with haughty challenge, the camerawork turning madcap amidst the laughing and jostling as she tries to catch the animal. The foul tenor of the episode is only dispelled by the grace of Basil handing the widow his umbrella, a simple gesture of gentlemanly feeling that quickly defines both their lives. The widow has a sort of servant in the mute and stunted villager Mimithos (Sotiris Moustakas), who has a faintly Chaplinesque quality, or perhaps an extremely devolved version of the pantomime character Pierrot, slavishly enthralled to beauty.
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Zorba encourages Basil to make a play for the widow because “I saw how she looks at you,” the only true barometer, and Basil’s subsequent encounters with her unfold on a level of gesture, as when she sends back his umbrella along with food and rosewater, and then encounters him on a trail, charged with mutual awareness. The quality of the gaze obsesses Cacoyannis, sometimes furious, sometimes challenging, baleful, exalting, desirous. The sequence in The Trojan Women when he would stage a chorus recitation with the faces of many women staring into the camera is presaged by the sure sense here that eyes might be the windows of the soul but are also its cameras, demanding and excoriating in return. Another striking moment of mimed intensity comes when several of the villagers, infuriated by the knowledge Basil is spending the night with the widow, cruelly tell a young man of the village who’s obsessively infatuated with her, Pavlo (Yorgo Voyagis), holding him down in his tavern chair and whispering in his ear as she struggles and resists the knowledge as if he’s having evil spells cast down upon him. Meanwhile Basil’s time with the widow is a scene of pathetic displays, the widow experiencing a fit of inexplicable grief, followed by Basil suddenly and desperately grasping her naked form when she seems to feel embarrassed, revealing himself, and the depth of his feeling, for the first time.
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Gesture is just as important as gaze in Zorba the Greek, precisely where Cacoyannis identifies much of life actually happens, in silence, in cues and exchanges that have their own meanings. Acceptance of one thing is also rejection of another, however implicit or unintentional, and the widow’s affair with Basil drives the maddened and despairing Pavlo to drown himself, a tragedy which his father Mavrandoni (George Foundas) and other village men blame on the widow rather than Basil. They carry his body up to her door as if in accusation: Mimithos stands on her garden wall ready to defend her, only to fall off and be mocked by one of the old women of the village, “Is he her lover too?” Sometime later a gang lies in wait to ambush her as she goes to church. Mavrandoni bars her from entering, and villagers hurl stones at her, before one of the angry and offended men, Manolakas (Takis Emmanuel), moves to slay her in an honour killing; the circle of eyes that surrounded the widow in the tavern sequence has now grown and become malignant, a hydra now ready to devour. Basil, alerted from inside the church by the ruckus but unable to break through the cordon about the fateful scene, instead sends Mimithos to fetch Zorba, and he arrives just in time to save the widow from his knife in a trial of strength that sees Zorba victorious. But as Zorba stares down the other men and leads the widow out of the cordon, Mavrandoni springs upon her and cuts her throat.
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Cacoyannis’ love of tragedy and grand theatre certainly found its element in this movement of the film, and it’s a hard scene to take, in its portrayal of virulent communal misogyny and the cheerless confrontation with the truth that, however much moral and physical authority Zorba has and intellectual refinement and purity of spirit Basil retains, both are finally, easily outmatched when an entire community decides to consume its own. Basil confesses in a disorientated mumble his utter incapacity to help. Basil and Zorba are reduced to mere bystanders in someone else’s grim fate; indeed, the narrative implies, that is all anyone is, each in turn. One notable difference between source and film sometimes targeted by commentators is that Kazantzakis held Crete in greater affection, and balanced his portrait of the island’s inhabitants with more forgiving and indulgent aspects, whilst Cacoyannis seems much more prosecutorial of the Cretans he surveys in their brutal, hypocritical morality and vulture-like greed when they flock to raid the dying Hortense’s possessions. That said, Cacoyannis’ camera readily contextualises such behaviour, where scarcity engenders a form of madness that readily breaks out if the forms designed to keep life processes in play are disturbed. The widow’s commodity of beauty is retained chiefly because she doesn’t have to labour in the fields like the other women. Hortense’s pretences to keeping alive a little corner of romantic beauty are paltry by comparison with her dreams but might as well be royalty to her poorer neighbours.
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In Cacoyannis’s eye Zorba seems nonetheless less the archetypal common man than an exceptional one, one forged by a hard life of being used and absorbing such cruel lessons. An earlier scene in the film sees Basil facetiously accuse Zorba of being unpatriotic (in part to deflect Zorba from asking questions about the widow’s gifts) because he readily cited “a wise old Turk” as one source of his wisdom, stoking Zorba’s anger as he reports having “killed men, raped women” in the name of patriotism, led through paths of painful wisdom in a long life of being used to the conclusion that only his own sense of good and bad, right and wrong should guide his actions. The widow’s murder has no apparent consequence in the film (in the novel, Mavrandoni was hunted and eventually arrested), and of course there is nothing to be done: no rite or process breathes life back into a corpse. Basil and Zorba are left only to confront their own anguish, sparking one of the great dialogue exchanges in cinema, as Zorba demands Basil explain why the young die: “What’s the use of all your damn books if they don’t tell you that – what the hell do they tell you?” “They tell me,” Basil replies oh so poetically, “About the agony of men who can’t answer questions like yours.” To which Zorba retorts with all his peasant defiance, “I spit on their agony.”
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Quinn and Bates play off each-other beautifully throughout the film, and Bates, whilst cast in the far less eye-catching part, nonetheless gives the film its true centre. Carefully suggesting the lingering sorrow of loss and the wordless sense of need that drives him to Crete and makes him hire Zorba, Bates, with his inimitably lucid gaze and capacity for suggesting roiling emotions at war with cool intellect, balances Quinn’s evocation of bravura with a portrayal of a man for whom self-expression is like watching a golem trying to fashion its own clay. Papas, who had worked with Quinn on The Guns of Navarone and with Cacoyannis in the title role of Elektra, was always an astounding movie presence and she’s mesmerising here, her Widow a force of sensual imperative incarnate, glowing-eyed in the dark amidst the olive trees of her estate, until she’s revealed as all too human as Basil ventures close. Director of Photography Walter Lasally’s close-ups, particularly of Papas, are something close to shamanism in their enthralled study of intense and remarkable faces.
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Kedrova however emerged with the only Oscar for the film’s actors, with her marvellous blend of absurdity and pathos. Zorba’s decision to try and make Hortense happy, as he realises she’s dying, by actually agreeing to marry her, becomes another raw lesson in accepting loss. After she ventures out in rain to see Zorba, he goes through a mock wedding ceremony with her, and then looks after her as she becomes dreadfully ill. As it becomes clear she’s dying, the villagers flock to the Hotel Ritz as because Hortense isn’t officially married and has no relatives, the state will claim her belongings. The moment she expires, they begin stripping the valuables out of her house, leaving Zorba to only her corpse splayed upon her bed and her caged pet parrot in an otherwise completely bare room, a hyperbolic depiction of life and death as states of being and not being. Zorba’s simple reaction is take her parrot in hand and leave with Basil, after drinking a toast to her soul offered, with silent and conciliatory meaning, by Manolakis.
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Although Theodorakis’ theme is so well-known, it’s worth noting that his work throughout the film is excellent, snapping into lockstep with Cacoyannis’s images, investing hints of disquiet and abnormality as well as local flavour and comedy (Theodorakis became a significant voice of opposition to the military regime that took control of Greece in the late 1960s). An early scene, as Basil and Zorba travel on the ferry to Crete, becomes a kind of dance sequence as the passengers are tossed to and fro about as the ferry ploughs through heavy seas, reeling motions and editing choreographed with comic effect and Theodorakis scoring it like a madcap hoedown. Theodorakis’ scoring is also of course utterly vital to the film’s end. Zorba’s zipline proves to work a bit too well when they finally get around to testing in a moment of great ceremony and spectacle for the village, and the logs come flying down so fast they keep breaking, or ripping away and crashing, before shaking the whole array to pieces. Basil, aware he’s got no choice now but to go back to England, nonetheless asks Zorba to teach him to dance, and finally obtains the same talent Zorba has, laughing at disaster and determined to actually live life. Cacoyannis’ iconic final shot zooms back on the sight of the two men dancing on the beach, Theodorakis’ theme plucking away merrily on the soundtrack, two dancing idiots delivered from a sad world.

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2010s, Drama, Greek cinema

Attenberg (2010)

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Director/Screenwriter: Athina Rachel Tsangari

By Roderick Heath

Last year’s Dogtooth, directed by Giorgos Lanthimos, snatched a lot of fresh attention for current Greek cinema with its outré portrayal of a twisted, hermetic family life redolent of political, cultural, and psychosexual repression and perversion. Attenberg, which debuted at 2010’s Venice Film Festival but which is only just now being released internationally, is very much a companion piece to Dogtooth, written and directed as it is by that film’s producer, Athina Rachel Tsangari, and featuring Lanthimos in its cast. Less showy and grotesque than Dogtooth, Attenberg might actually strike deeper and truer in its analytical study of boredom, behaviour, and limited horizons.

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Attenberg genuflects coolly on the state of contemporary Greece, now the famous swamp of the European Union’s economic ideals, but its observations and encompassed concerns are genuinely universal; in fact, I’ve seen few films that seem to nail the unsettling and shiftless mood of some corners of the current age better. Everyone knows the generational mythos of the Baby Boomers: people who chafed at ossified and neurotic parents, trying to reclaim present and future from programmatic social structures and Atomic Age anxiety. Generation X got fed up with that and offered its own now-tired mythos, that of a collective of betrayed latchkey kids. Athina Rachel Tsangari’s feature debut film, seems to be attempting to describe a common, specifically modern malady for Gen Y, Millennials, whatever you want to call them. However, in the character of its alienated, developmentally stalled heroine Marina (Ariane Labed), its often droll antistrophes of detached, clinical Euro-realism, and flourishes of play seem more akin to the movies of some of the French New Wave’s more overt dreamers, like Jacques Rivette and Jacques Demy, and the antic femininity of Vera Chitilova’s Daisies (1966).

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The title is spawned by the mispronunciation of “Attenborough”, as in Sir David, the iconic wildlife documentary presenter (and brother of Richard), by Marina’s BFF Bella (Evangelia Randou). Marina watches Attenborough’s work obsessively, and she and Bella, as well as Marina’s architect father (Vangelis Mourikis), love aping the behaviour of animals. Marina and Bella have one of those symbiotic relationships a lot of young women have, to the extent that they are often glimpsed moving along together in tightly choreographed dance moves that seem to mix together the stonefaced stiltedness of the Madison in Bande à Part (1964) with the sisterly peregrinations in Demy’s The Young Girls of Rochefort (1964), but robbed of all apparent joie de vivre. They wander the streets singing along to Francoise Hardy, hissing and clawing in rhythmic gyrations, or imitating urinating animals.

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But strains are also showing in this symbiosis. Bella, who works in a local restaurant, has become quite sexually experienced, whereas Marina has never been interested in sex, or so she says. The film commences with an epic, increasingly funny girl-on-girl snog as Bella tries to teach Marina how to kiss, leading to several minutes of absurd tongue wrestling. Marina complains, “I’ve never had something wriggling in my mouth—it’s disgusting!” but still insists Bella “get on in there!” Bella recounts her dreams, which are filled with trees growing manifold varieties of penislike fruit. Marina later ponders her sexual identity, admitting to admiring aspects of the female form more, checking out other female bodies during a sojourn to the changing rooms of the local pool—she’d dream about tit trees—but not desiring them, and staring instead with glum curiosity at her form. She’s alarmed by the thought of a “piston” jackhammering away between her thighs, and in her conversations with her serenely unflappable, black-humoured father (Vangelis Mourikis), admits she has often liked to picture him naked but without a penis.

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Things are changing for the trio who trio live in a bleak and lifeless seaside town built to house workers for a nearby mine and factory that burns and billows day and night with glowering import. Marina’s father was one of the architects of this glorified dormitory, but now detests it, describing it as a place where they seemed more interested in how it would look as ruins than as a place to actually live. It’s Greece, but you’d be hard-pressed to see anything Greek about this strange, denuded, depopulated locale. Marina and Bella’s relationship is turning distinctly icy, even as they still rely on each other to survive emotionally and imaginatively, as the disparity between their tastes in sex and life become more defined. The easy life father and daughter had becomes newly charged when Bella joins them and gives the father a massage.

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The father is now undergoing treatment for a cancer that proves terminal, and thus he is weighing up his legacy, that of Greece, and perhaps indeed, the previous century’s project. Once a thorough-going idealist, he sees a country that tried to skip directly from agrarian backwardness to modern postindustrialism without going through the evolutionary stages in between, with its agonies of repression and cultural upheaval neatly squared away, leaving a sterile and alien state that can’t support itself. Father announces that he’s boycotting the twentieth century, and regrets leaving this world to Marina. He also remonstrates himself for considering Marina too much of a pal, as now, Marina finally has to take the risk of surrendering herself to erotic violation, which means no longer being able to comment on life as if she’s Attenborough watching the animal kingdom.

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Tsangari returns several times to a piece from Attenborough’s breathtaking encounter with the mountain gorillas of Kenya during which he had the sensation that there was only the finest line separating the species—a point where the ability to comment, to objectivise, breaks down in the implacable so nearly human stare of the animals. The notion of such charged first contact flows amusingly into the scenes in which Marina chooses a potential mate for herself, the darkly handsome, yet fundamentally affable Spyros (Lanthimos), to whom she first tries to signal her interest by competing with him furiously at foosball. Spyros, whom Marina occasionally drives to and from work at the factory, proves to be a good choice. He understandingly, if not entirely without frustration, allows Marina to ease herself into sexual experience, feeling out his body and chattering away in her observational style, and tries out on him the same sort of the demonstrative quirks she’s used to sharing: she flexes out her shoulder blades like curtailed wings, wondering at the simultaneous familiarity and strangeness of one’s own body.

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Later Marina makes friends with Spyros’ penis by lying with her face on it and adjusting her physical expectations of what it’s like. All of Marina’s efforts are nonetheless infused with the blear melancholia of a daughter waiting for her father to die, slowly detaching herself from what has been a convenient sealing off from the reality of a place and time that offers little cheer. Father, dismayed at the thought of being buried and eaten by worms, wants to be cremated, which is illegal, so he has to be shipped out of Greece for the service. He starts to receive newsletters from the action group trying to get the law changed (“Best to kept abreast of such things where I’m going.”). In one of the film’s most simultaneously heartbreaking and droll scenes, Marina meets with an agent of the company he has contracted with to cremate him; the agent preciously dissuades her from sending her father to neighbouring Bulgaria: though the cheapest option, it means being cremated alongside a lot of ex-Communist atheists. Even in death, there is no escape from petty parochialisms.

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Tsangari, who actually got her masters in fine arts degree in Texas, seems well placed to make a movie about the fascinating contemporary phenomenon of widespread, virtual world citizenship. Thanks to mass culture and the internet, we are all absorbing pop culture from around the globe and able to use those things to define ourselves, and yet we are still contained by immediate surroundings that cannot be transcended, only given up to or abandoned. Marina and Bella, blithely imitating the ubiquitous fascination with lesbian kisses, watching British nature documentaries, and strolling through town singing morose French chansons as if participating in their homemade remake of a favourite ’50s teen movie, remake their sterile world out of such shreds and patches. The fragmented structure of the film, full of these weird and momentarily delightful switchbacks of tone and vision, is given sense by this attempt to say something, free of cheesy agitprop against globalisation and commercialism, whilst still engaging with the borderless world. In such a context, Marina tries to rebuild her sense of self in a crisis of identity by asking some coldly intimate questions: “Is it a taboo?” she questions seriously her peerlessly honest father when she starts discussing his genitalia. Later she admits to being disappointed in him when he admits to having had sex since her mother died, as if their life was a serene music of the intellect and spheres. The joke that Attenberg mimics the Attenborough docos in its study of human life is most apparent in these scenes, as Marina acts as if certain elements of humanity are completely foreign to her and have to be restated and given new substance in order to survive. This is only part of the film’s texture, however, though it has been mistaken for the be-all of the film by some reviewers. Tsangari’s method is subtler, critiquing the disparity between Marina’s capacity to study and live at the same time. “You didn’t raise me that way,” she retorts to her father at one point when he says he wishes she could find a romantic partner, and he agrees.

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Attenberg is actually, most fundamentally a story about grief as experienced before, rather than after, the death of a loved one. Marina’s father and his intellectual plight call to mind Ari’s father in Stephen Frears and Hanif Kureishi’s My Beautiful Laundrette (1986), living remnant and burnt-out torchbearer for multiple forms of given faith of the progressive left, hoping that industrial development, globalisation, and modernisation could heal all wounds. It gets us out of what James Joyce called history—“the nightmare from which I am trying to awake”—only to fall foul to an alienation from the definition of the self from that an awareness of history provides. Meanwhile Marina falls prey to such totems as her father’s shirt, which she has washed and hangs on the line, only to bury her face in it and hide within its cloth. Marina begs Bella to have sex with her father, calling it a favour she’ll pay back at some time. Bella agrees, leading to a scene in which the two young women, stony and soldierly in their bearing, converge on the hospital and Bella disappears into the father’s rooms to give the dying man his last taste of carnal delight. Labed’s performance, without breaking the mould of deadpan cool, constantly deepens and achieves a cabalistic intensity as the film winds toward its inevitable climax, most especially in the finite twinges of grief that inflect her otherwise calm demeanour with the funeral service rep, and as Marina has to deal with the petty details and cold bureaucracy of the hospital staff after her father has died.

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Most strange and almost hallucinatory, whilst on the midnight death watch in her father’s hospital room, Marina turns on a radio and begins a stuttering, pathetic, yet almost incantatory dance. This echoes the mad dance by Aggeliki Papoulia in Dogtooth, but with an inverted meaning: whereas that daughter’s dance was an act of self-definition patching together tropes from movies seen on TV and frantic desperation, Labed’s dance here is a kind of rite, repeating the song’s lyrics “this is a song about life” in a funerary gyration for her father, right on the edge of oblivion, and herself, on the edge of having to take command and find a way out of the town that seems so much like a living tomb. Suddenly, in her own way, Marina seems a classical Greek heroine, a modern-day Antigone trying to do right by her father and herself. Labed’s performance is, like the film, a quietly gripping and oddball coup, if, cumulatively, also an achingly sad one. The last stages of Attenberg, as Marina watches the weird process of her father’s coffin being packed for shipping, and then as she and Bella drop his ashes into the harbour, are suitably forlorn and quietly confirm the father’s expectation of leaving behind cities of industry in which the people who work in them wander in dolorous severance from whatever gave shape to their existence. Tsangari offers a cheerless industrial landscape after the girls have driven off, leaving behind rain and mud and lumbering trucks. Francoise Hardy again sings piningly and then fades into silence as we, like Marina, ponder where the new century is taking us.

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1970s, Drama, Greek cinema, Historical

The Trojan Women (1971)

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Director/Screenwriter: Michael Cacoyannis

By Roderick Heath

Euripides’ play, first performed in 415 BC, is one of those jewels that only requires the slightest polishing by a good modern translator to come up as perfect. Not so much a tragedy, or even a drama, it is perhaps more an acted lament, and a tallying up of the horrors humankind can heap upon itself and testament to the small, pitying comforts and paltry flashes of meaning that due honour can bring. Euripides was never popular with his Athenian audiences and judges, who only gave him top laurels at the Drama festival a scant few times over a very long writing career largely because he never quite offered the consoling quality of tragedy as being ruled by inexorable fate. In Euripides’ harshly ironic works, humans were quite often so vile that they needed gods to step in and sort the insanity out, hence his famous dramatic invention, the deus ex machina. The Trojan Women doesn’t even have that (though Poseidon and Athena watch with heavy hearts), for his take on the aftermath of the great Homeric founding myth of Greek nationalism evoked brutality, chauvinism, hysteria, and recrimination.

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Written when Euripides’ home city of Athens was engaged in the desperate battle for hegemony with Sparta, with the anxieties of that looming defeat writ large in the work, The Trojan Women is nonetheless one of the most thorough and universal approximations of desolation ever written. It’s distinguished by a relentlessly simple structure: the captured women of the fallen city, famous names all—Queen Hecuba, Andromache, Helen, Cassandra—come out one by one to meet their various fates, to be shoved into someone’s bed or kept as trophy of excellence, and, in Andromache’s excruciating case, to have her young son thrown to his death from the city walls so that he’ll never grown up to be as strong as his father Hector. Cassandra, virgin priestess raped by Ajax, goes half out of her mind and still cursed with foresight in perceiving what will be the grotesque end of her brief fate as Agamemnon’s concubine. Hecuba, stripped of everything that was once her source of majestic pride, is claimed by Odysseus, Homer’s robust intellectual hero always rendered by Euripides as the epitome of conniving politicians. And Helen, loathed by both sides, maintains such fierce self-possession and spirited cunning that she seems the most warlike, victorious entity in Troy.

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Michael Cacoyannis (Anglicised from Mihalis Kakogiannis), a director who often adapted stage works and a prominent figure of a small but eye-catching Greek New Wave in early ’60s cinema, had become known worldwide with a Cannes prize-winning version of another Euripides play, Electra (1962), and then his excellent, earthy adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’ Zorba the Greek (1964). His subsequent film career stumbled with the much-loathed gay nuclear comedy The Day the Fish Came Out (1967), and a lot of subsequent missed opportunities, such as often befell European directors of the era who wavered uneasily between their roots and Hollywood. His adaptation of The Trojan Women, however, more than deserves disinterring: it deserves celebration as a sublimely gritty film, with primal intensity in its performances and naturalistic location photography. A few years ago, when Wolfgang Peterson’s prosaic Troy was released, some critics recalled Cacoyannis’ film, and in particular, Irene Papas’ staggering Helen, with new nostalgia. Papas, who had played the ill-fated lover of Alan Bates’ English scholar in Zorba, plays a variation on that character here, a woman whose infernal beauty and galvanising pride—simply for the fact of her being—so outrages the lesser mortals about her that it drives them to screaming, stone-hurling outrage.

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Cacoyannis’ adaptation, taken from Edith Hamilton’s respected translation of the play, strips away the metaphysical framing devices and most of the chorus interludes, and introduces the action instead with a functional voiceover to set the scene. This leaves the dramatic dialogues, in which Hecuba, waiting with the hundreds of other Trojan women on the sun-withered hills outside the city, accounts her own woes. She also tries to console Cassandra (Genevieve Bujold), as Greek herald Talthybius (Brian Blessed) comes to fetch her for Agamemnon. Cassandra reels through the vast interior of a holy cave in her unhinged ferocity, singing songs to Hymen, the god of nuptials, a bitterly ironic epistle considering she’s lost her virginity in rape and is about to be dragged off as a sex slave. Andromache (Vanessa Redgrave) keeps her young son Astyanax (Alberto Sanz) close to her whilst her dead husband Hector’s armour is hauled to the Greek encampment as a prize; Talthybius, who detests the grim duties he’s been given but doesn’t shrink from them, tells Andromache that the Greek chieftains have decided Astyanax is to be killed to prevent his growing into a man who might avenge his father.

Although based on classical tragedy, The Trojan Women is very much a product of the cinematic atmosphere of the early ’70s, with its virulent antiwar and protofeminist themes, and very physical New Wave cinematic techniques: sweeping, swooping zoom shots, interludes of aggressively realistic handheld camerawork, and a purposeful lack of artifice in lighting and costuming. Shot in Spain, the baking sun that’s dehydrating and maddening the waiting women is practically palpable. Such verisimilitude was a consistent approach for films tackling venerable material at the time, like Philip Saville’s Oedipus the King (1968), a moderate example, and Pasolini’s “Mythical” and “Medieval” series, or Polanski’s Macbeth (1971), superior ones. Rather than use clouds of ominous portent to suggest tragedy, Cacoyannis’s staging in the heat of the brightest day is both a response to the simple truth of climate, but also canny in making nature as incisive, revealing, and pitiless as the unfolding situation.

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Although the look of The Trojan Woman is realistic, the acting styles are more distinctly stylised, though kept mostly just this side of the theatrical. Considering the colossal, outsized emotions and events the actresses must represent, such stylisation is not inappropriate. And the ritualised form of the play is essential to its effect and meaning: it’s not a work of historical reportage, nor does Cacoyannis pretend it’s one. Hepburn uses her dry, snapping voice to wound and snarl and mourn with orchestral effect. The condensed anguish buckles the actresses’ bodies and threatens to wrench their spirits out of their flesh, building to the bloodcurdling moment when Andromache, realising exactly what the Greeks propose to do to her son, emits a slight groaning sound as if she’s been stabbed in the lung, slowly rising to a hideous cry of woe—a moment of spine-chilling power and a testimony to Redgrave’s talent.

Adapting the device of the chorus to make it work for a modern audience is a difficult feat in the theatre, never mind cinema, and Cacoyannis cut away most choral passages, except for one spellbinding moment when the Trojan women mass together and recount how the city was taken. Cacoyannis, who did his own editing, cuts rapidly through ultra-close-ups of their ranked faces, eyes filling frames as the story of the wooden horse and the sack of Troy drones on, the tale falling from their lips as a litany of betrayals and abuses. The heightened realism works, though it does point to a lack in The Trojan Women as adaptation: Euripides’ choruses were usually the vessels of his finest poetry and offered islets of peace and reflection. Losing most of them robs the story of balance and beauty, but it’s largely necessary to maintaining the kind of dramatic integrity needed in motion pictures, and the film flows with proper remorselessness.

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The women are sometimes as much at war with each other, it seems, as they were with the Greeks, and there’s a darkly misanthropic aspect to how each of them tries to outdo the others in listing their woes, as if there’s a kind of triumph in trying to mask and mediate the devastation. Where in any situation but this one grief, loss, and defeat would be ennobling at least in how one’s immediate society treats one, when an entire society has been annihilated, there’s no respite at all, only other haggard, sorrow-corroded faces to look at. Yet fellowship continually asserts itself, as Hecuba chides Cassandra with enough astringent force to bring her daughter out of her hysteria, and instructs Andromache in the arts of accepting cruel decisions. Andromache angrily derides Hecuba’s almost exultant self-celebration as a figure of woe whose sons and husband are now dead, pointing out that such was at least the honourable death of warriors, whilst she’s left to raise a young son with no place in the world—and even that proves to be a better burden than the final one she’s given. Hecuba, with her still explosive, regal energy, turns her own survival and defiance into an ongoing resistance.

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The war isn’t even finished yet: the Greeks are still afraid of Hector, parading his armour about on a stand to display their capture of his memory, and still needing the blood of his son to be spilt in the most savage fashion possible. When Menelaus (Patrick Magee) turns up, he asserts complete power over what to do with Helen, the war’s nominal cause, and everyone expects her to be executed for her treachery. Helen lurks, caged like a wild beast, behind the wooden slats of a gated hut. But her guards take no chances, not wanting to be blamed in case Helen, as everyone senses, can weasel her way out of her situation: when soldiers deny the parched, panting prisoners any water, instead pouring out libations for themselves, the guard attempts to surreptitiously slip a dish of it to Helen, immediately stirring the anger of the other prisoners. Helen defiantly doesn’t even drink the water, but strips off her clothes to wash herself, stoking the other women’s wrath to foaming rage; they begin pelting her prison with stones and work up the will to charge the prison, drag her out, and tear her to pieces. The Greek soldiers have to rally to push them back.

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Papas’ Helen, when she finally emerges, looks every bit as martially fierce as any warrior, never demurring or trying to look humble even as she attempts to soften Menelaus’ anger, spinning a tale that Hecuba furiously mocks about how she had tried to return to the Greek camp to end the war, and also sharpening her own vicious tongue to a point in reminding her one-time husband that the war, in spite of the Greeks’ aggrieved rhetoric, hasn’t worked out too badly for them. Whilst playing the martyr, Helen still makes it clear that she’s nobody’s victim. Her appeals are successful enough to make Menelaus decide to hold off her execution until they return home, and, as Hecuba recognises, that’s all the foothold she needed to come through this slaughter free and clear. Talthybius presents Hecuba and the other women with Astyanax’s body after he’s been killed, and as both emblem of Troy and final, bleakest sacrifice to the spirit of war, they give him a funeral. As night falls, the Greeks torch what’s left of the city, and Hecuba, in a momentary fit of despair, attempts to hurl herself into the fires, but gives up and shuffles away into slavery with the remaining women.

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It’s a sad saga the film recounts, but the final effect of the drama is satisfying only in its total evocation of defeat: all fear, anger, fight, and passion have been exhausted by the conclusion, and there’s nothing left indeed but to accept it and move on—that, of course, is the essence of catharsis. I can’t help but find it a pity Cacoyannis didn’t continue on and film, say, Euripides’ own feel-good sequel Andromache. Cacoyannis evokes Holocaust images as bushels of the women prisoners are rounded up and crowded onto carts to be hauled away, and the final burning of Troy lends the very finish an apocalyptic air, as if all the world’s ending, which, in a way, it is. The film’s immediate political resonances are suggestive, too: Greece was in the hands of a military junta at the time of production, and Cacoyannis’s regular collaborator, Mikis Theodorakis, having once been imprisoned by that regime for his activism, wrote the film’s score whilst in exile. The atmosphere of oppression, destruction, and hate is urgent, and whilst some of the camerawork gets hammy on occasions, that’s the price the film pays for never feels stagy or hidebound—far from it. Whilst the greater part of The Trojan Women‘s drama and effect flows from its words, it’s also vibrant and beautiful cinema, and a vital, bristling, morally engaged artwork.

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