The Films Nobody Talks About Élie Castiel reviews Greek cinema at Toronto

in 33rd Toronto International Film Festival

by Elie Castiel

Apart from the films of Theo Angelopoulos — who, rumour has it, has had difficulty finding commercial distribution for the second part of his Greek war trilogy — little is known about the new Greek cinema, a cinema which, one should add, seems deliberately centered around the inner psychological problems of the modern Greek individual.

There were two Greek entries at the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival. On the one hand, we have Iannis Smaragdi’s sumptuous El Greco. This time, contrary to Luciano Salce’s shy and unfaithful 1965 take on the same material, a Greek director takes an intentionally nationalistic approach to the subject matter. Smaragdis’ El Greco is aware — and proud — of his ethnic origin on the island of Crete. All through the film, he will remind us of that particularity. In the first years of his professional career, El Greco does not believe himself to be a great painter. The reasons which drive him to pursue that risky profession spring from the domain of spirituality as a means to understand God’s mission on earth. Everything changes in Venice, and later in Toledo.

Intentionally, too, Smaragdis’ film follows a linear narrative, a traditional mise en scène, and a straight-forward dialogue that leaves nothing to the imagination. This is most probably the Greek way: straight to the point. But there is an ambiguous relationship between El Greco, otherwise known as Domenikos Theotocopoulos, and the future Inquisitor Guevara. Smaragdis, known to festivalgoers for his simultaneously lush and restrained 1996 feature Cavafy, prefers not to confront conventional audiences. Another filmmaker might have been more daring in exploring, and elaborating on, the latent homosexual desire of Guevara towards El Greco — who, as a matter of fact, seems not to understand his future nemesis’ true sentiments. On the other hand, the film deftly captures the religious extremism and stately barbarism of the painter’s era.

But the most important thing about El Greco is that it gives Greece the opportunity to offer a great spectacle with high production standards à laHollywood. Given the fact that Greek film production is rather almost unknown outside the nation’s borders, this is definitely a plus.

The other Greek film at Toronto stands apart from El Greco in that the action takes place in the present day, in the claustrophobic environment of an Athens apartment. When first-time feature director Alexis Alexiou states that that Tale 52 (Istoria 52) lies “somewhere between the lines of psychological drama and a fantasy thriller … a bizarre tale about the end and the beginning of an affair”, one must add that the young director has succeeded in illustrating that premise on the screen, using the Cinemascope frame as a way to juxtapose his anti-hero’s tormented mind against his environment, an apartment where everything is possible — and, at times, impossible.

Alexiou comes from the new school of Greek cinema. It is a cinema in transition, a cinema not totally revealed, experimenting with form, narrative, style, aesthetic, story-telling, a cinema which has nothing to do with the cinema of the preceding generations, inspired by the Eastern and Soviet cinema. In terms of movie-watching, young Greek filmmakers have a VHS and DVD background, particularly versed in classic films from the great masters of the Western world. But in making their films, they take their inspiration from American and European independent cinema.

Visually, Alexiou quotes De Palma but still maintains a promising and inspired originality. His film is not for average audiences, but it is an interesting calling cardfor future works. In a brief interview, Alexiou mentioned he does not necessarily make films to please an audience, but rather because he is inspired by an idea, an obsession or some other sort of Freudian revelation.

If one takes this statement into account, it is important to note that the contemplative cinema of Theo Angelopoulos is being replaced by a new cinema. It is in fact a new cinematic gaze that evolves around the individual rather than the collective; the inner self rather than the social; the ambiguous rather than the explicit. This is the cinema that the likes of Alexis Alexiou are producing in Greece. On the other hand, filmmakers like Iannis Smaragdis continue to do the opposite, showing a necessary and essential democratic approach to Greek filmmaking.