“Art does not recognise any boundaries when it speaks the language of truth.” – Michael Cacoyannis
For Movie Monday I am reviewing the 1977 Michael Cacoyannis film “Iphigeneia”. I remember seeing this film as a University student and being thunderstruck by it. Now, on a subsequent viewing its gut-wrenching power has not abated. Cacoyannis made three films all based on ancient Greek tragedies by Euripides and "Iphigeneia (in Aulis)" is one of them. The other two are “Electra” (1962) and “Trojan Women” (1971). All of them are good adaptations of the ancient Greek tragedies, and the film medium has been used to its full advantage in order to recreate a picture of archaic Greece at the time of the Trojan War. You may be familiar with the other famous film directed by Cacoyannis, “Zorba the Greek”.
The sets and costumes are very effective and the earthy protoculture of the Mycenaean times has been captured well. The director does not resort to superstition to explain the action, but rather allows the film to be seen in human terms. Greed, lust for glory, envy, power struggles, resentment and hunger for revenge all vie for prominence, and the gentler sentiments of parental love, the wish to protect one’s offspring and the nobler quality of allegiance to one’s country act as a counterfoil to the baser emotions.
The casting and acting is superb, with the grand-dame of Greek cinema, Irene Pappas as Clytemnestra, pulling all stops out. She is matched by Kostas Kazakos, playing Agamemnon and the (then) newcomer Tatiana Papamoschou doing a sterling job as Iphigeneia. The sets are raw and arid, minimalist to a certain extent, but also rich in their simplicity and naturalness. The music score by Mikis Theodorakis supports the action admirably without becoming obtrusive. I watched the DVD version of the movie and the English subtitling was sympathetic to the original modern Greek soundtrack.
In this movie Cacoyannis uses his directorial palette to paint with masterful strokes a rich canvas where human emotions come to the fore and assail our senses. His style is bold but tender, raw but polished at the same time. He pays homage to Euripides, but the film is not subservient to the ancient playwright. The ancient drama is the foundation on which the director builds a modern tower with the aid of the present-day technology of storytelling.
The plot follows Euripides’ “Iphigeneia in Aulis” rather closely. The Greek army is about to set sail from the Greek port of Aulis to Troy, in order to (ostensibly) defend the honour of Menelaus, whose wife Helen of Troy was abducted by Paris, a Trojan prince. The Greek soldiers, tired of the poor rations they are receiving daily while waiting for favourable winds to blow, decide to go on a rampage and slay herds sacred to Artemis, the huntress goddess. A sacred deer is also slain, contrary to the advice of Agamemnon, Menelaus’ brother and leader of the Greek army.
Artemis punishes the Greeks by not allowing any winds to blow and in order to allow the Greeks to leave Aulis, and she gives word to Calchas, the seer, that she will only let the winds blow favourably if Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter Iphigeneia to her. Agamemnon initially refuses to do so, but Odysseus and Menelaus convince him to consent. He writes to his wife Clytemnestra in Argos to send his daughter to him, with the excuse of marrying her to Achilles. His real reason is of course the grisly human sacrifice to the slighted Artemis…
I won’t spoil it for you if you are not familiar with the story, so if you get a chance to see this movie, do so! A word of warning, it is for mature viewers. There are some violent scenes and some nudity. Something that I found particularly confronting and distasteful as an animal lover, was the brutal slaying of the herds of Artemis. I sympathised with the goddess on this matter, actually…
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