Wednesday, September 9, 2009


Americans, how would you feel if the lion's share of westerns were spaghetti westerns, if your national mythology had been appropriated by another country's movie industry? I imagine the people of Greece must feel that way when they see their ancient mythology presented to the world in the form of Italian muscleman films? The overwhelming majority of films based on Greek mythology are not Greek, but Michael Cacoyannis's stark epic comes straight from the source. It's adapted from the play Iphigenia in Aulis by Euripides, one of the great ancient tragedians, but it also had to have struck a contemporary chord for modern Greek audiences.

Kostas Kazakos as Agamemnon

Mythology tells us that King Agamemnon, commander-in-chief of the Greek expeditionary force to rescue his sister-in-law Helen from Troy, was ordered by an oracle to sacrifice his eldest daughter to the goddess Artemis, who would then allow the winds to blow the Greek fleet from its base at Aulis to the enemy coast. This is just another feather in the cap of the House of Atreus, and Agamemnon will get his when he returns from the war (contra Troy, and fie on that awful film while I'm on the subject) and his grudge-holding wife Clytemnestra kills him, only to be whacked in turn by her son Orestes at the instigation of his sister Elektra, in whom Freud took an interest millennia later. Elaborations of the basic myth explain that Agamemnon lured his daughter to Aulis with a promise of marriage to Achilles, then thought better of the whole deal and sent a messenger to tell his wife to turn back for home, only to have that message intercepted by minions of his brother Menelaus, Helen's husband, who wants nothing getting in the way of his revenge mission. None the wiser, Clytemnestra's party ends up in Achilles's camp, only to be baffled by the hero's bafflement at all talk of marriage. When the truth comes out Clytemnestra is furious and Achilles is characteristically more so at being made a dupe. He's now willing to fight against all odds to save Iphigenia from the sacrifice, but seeing that the odds are pretty hopeless, the girl decides to go to her fate rather than let people waste their lives for her sake.

Panos Mihalopoulos as Achilles and Irene Papas as Clytemnestra

That's the story Cacoyannis tells, but he gives it a strongly political emphasis. The film represented the director's return to Greece after years of self-imposed exile during the reign of a military junta, and a deep suspicion of militarism pervades his interpretation of the myth. In his Iphigenia the super-army created by Agamemnon has become a thing unto itself, defiant toward leaders who in the absence of combat look more like politicians than warriors or heroes. They are manipulated by Odysseus, the nearest thing to an outright villain in the picture, who is portrayed as a self-interested demagogue possibly out to usurp Agamemnon's elected position as commander-in-chief. He goads the rank-and-file into demanding the sacrifice originally ordained by the oracle by telling them it's only fair when so many mother's sons are going to lose their lives in the war that the first casualty be one of the commander's children. Agamemnon himself craves his position of command, and his second thoughts about sacrificing his daughter are tempered by the idea that saving her might break up the army or endanger his position on top. He takes out his guilt feelings on his brother Menelaus, blaming him and his "whore" Helen for having to kill his own daughter. But Menelaus reminds him that he, Agamemnon, was the one who wanted control of the army, an end towards which Menelaus made himself subservient, even though it was his honor at stake in the matter of Helen. Initially repelled by the thought of sacrifice himself, Menelaus ends up adding to the pressure on his brother. Even Achilles, the loyalty of whose Myrmidons was legendary, finds himself unable to win his own men over to the defense of Iphigenia. "We came for a war, not a wedding feast," they tell him before driving the invincible warrior out of camp with a hail of rocks. With the gods significantly if not necessarily implicitly absent from the story, it ends up being the army, above all, that demands the death of an innocent who is imperiled only by her proximity to power. The heroic generals of myth, who might well serve as symbols for the junta themselves, end up being sacrifices of a kind to a machine of their creation.

The irony amid the proofs of the powerlessness of heroes in the face of the war machine is Iphigenia's own determination to make a genuine, honest sacrifice, not for the sake of the war but for the sake of her "new friend" Achilles and the others who were willing to protect her from the military mob. Resolved that no one should die for her sake, her only choice left is to die, but to make it clear that she dies by her own choice and on her own terms. But before her courage creates the illusion of a happy ending, we have a cruel finale in which the long-desired winds finally rise before Iphigenia is killed, as Odysseus seemed worriedly to realize they would, inspiring Agamemnon to make one final lunge to save his daughter -- in vain. Now that's tragedy.

Tatiana Papamoschou as Iphigenia

What Cacoyannis lacked in the way of vast Hollywood-style sets he makes up for in manpower and a vast landscape to deploy his actors on. Whatever the Greek film cost, it achieved an epic look without looking overproduced. The stark production design, including the masks the generals wear on public occasions, gives Ancient Greece a more alien quality than Hollywood or Italy ever conveyed, compelling us to look at the old story with fresh eyes.

Landscapes and costume design more than make up for the lack of
conventionally classical sets in Cacoyannis's

The cast probably won't be familiar to most viewers, except for Irene Papas, but they form a strong ensemble, including an uncanny Tatiana Papamoschou in the title role. Whatever damage generations of sword-and-sandal films may have done to the credibility of Greek mythology, Cacoyannis's Iphigenia is an honorable continuation of the ancient tradition.

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