Monday, 25 July 2011


“If death meant just leaving the stage long enough to change costume and come back as a new character...Would you slow down? Or speed up?” - Chuck Palahniuk

Monday was just a complete write-off with so many things happening at work but also after work at home with a meeting I had organised, phone calls from overseas as well as a drop-in visitor. It seemed that we had two days packed into one, and Tuesday looks as though it will be the same also! I’d like to do a commemorative post for Movie Monday as one of the legendary Greek Directors has died very recently.

Michael Cacoyannis the Greek-Cypriot filmmaker whose art-house films and adaptations of Euripides for stage and screen were critically acclaimed, died at the age of 89 years early today in Athens. He was perhaps best known as the director of the 1964 Hollywood hit “Zorba the Greek”. His death was announced by the Michael Cacoyannis Foundation, an institution for the performing arts he founded in 2003. Cacoyannis was the first Greek film-maker to achieve international renown, then diversifying and becoming a respected theatrical and operatic producer in Paris, Frankfurt, Athens and New York.

His most popular film “Zorba the Greek” (1964), was based on the novel of the same name by Nikos Kazantzakis. This film, nominated for seven Oscars won two. Its cast of box-office stars such as Anthony Quinn and Alan Bates may have helped to sky-rocket it to international renown and success at the Academy Awards. However, the film does have a good plot, captures the essence of the modern Greek psyche and delivers quite a magnificent punch. That it is packaged attractively helps tremendously also!

I have great respect for Cacoyannis’ earier films, such as “Stella” (1955) and “The Girl in Black” (1956). As his style matured he produced excellent cinematic adaptations of a Euripidean trilogy of ancient drama: “Electra” (1961), “Trojan Women” (1971) and “Iphigenia” (1977). All of these films drew fine performances from his lead actresses, with world-class performers being involved: Melina Mercouri, Irene Pappas, Katharine Hepburn, Geneviève Bujold and Vanessa Redgrave.

Cacoyannis, the director, was elegant with a strong pictorial sense and a good eye for striking images. He edited his own films and he used a dynamic, well-punctuated style similar perhaps to some early Russian silent cinema. In his early films he depicted Greek life and customs, but in a fresh and lively manner, which may explain their appeal. As he matured, he became more conventional and concerned excessively with impact and presentation rather than content. The Euripidean films were stunning visually with ancient Greek tragedy turned into effective modern drama. However, Cacoyannis perhaps lacked a signature style that characterises films of say, Ingmar Bergman or Luis Buñuel.

“Electra” (1962) is a striking filmic version of the Euripides tragedy that has been made accessible for modern audiences. It is a film in which the young Irene Papas (unknown outside Greece at that time, but at the height of her acting career and beauty) gives a fantastic performance in the title role. When Electra and her brother Orestes meet and recognise one another, are a magic movie moment, whose emotional power and poignancy is underpinned by Mikis Theodorakis’s emotional score.

“Zorba the Greek” (1964) was the most commercially successful film of Cacoyannis. The most memorable scene is that in which Anthony Quinn, as Zorba, the larger-than-life “eternal peasant”, dances on the beach. Mikis Theodorakis, the composer of the famous “Zorba’s Dance” music later admitted that the music was a bagatelle concocted to pass among the non-cognoscenti as typically Greek. It is often the case, what a composer considers his best works are not widely successful, but a “bagatelle” like Zorba’s Dance achieves wide popularity and acclaim.

Cacoyannis later in his career moved out of cinema and into theatrical and operatic directing, with a considerable amount of translation work of Greek drama into English, and Shakespeare plays into Greek. This is understandable given that he was well-educated (having left his native Cyprus, he was educated as a lawyer in England) and from his youth interested in the arts and literature of both countries.

His last film was the 1999 “The Cherry Orchard”, which starred Charlotte Rampling as an aristocrat who struggles to comes to grips with her family’s financial collapse.

Vale, Michael! – Καλό ταξίδι, Μιχάλη...

1 comment:

  1. I have watched Zorba and liked it, of course, but my favorite film of his is The Trojan Women. Absolutely amazing film with great team acting by some remarkable women actors.