Greek Cinema is something which, as they say in advertising, is ‘to be discovered’. Indeed, despite the fact that many Greek films have received ample international recognition over the last fifty years, the whole saga of its history and of the formation of its visual idiom remains unsaid and unexplored. For various political and institutional reasons, the field (which for decades was rather dormant) is currently going through a period of intense rediscovery. The publication series Aigokeros and its publisher Yannis Soldatos in Athens have produced remarkable studies about specific films or directors, while Soldatos himself has published the most detailed and passionate history of Greek cinema in seven volumes. His publication series also offers the venue to explore the miraculous history of Greek cinema in all its diversity and multiplicity. At the same time, several substantial publications by the Thessaloniki International Film Festival have instigated the cautious but nevertheless bold reassessment of the Greek cinematic past.

Information about Greek cinema is rather scanty and fragmented for an international audience. Despite the great triumvirate of the Greek Diaspora, Elias Kazan, John Cassavetes and Costa-Gavras, only two names from the actual Greek cinematic culture are usually mentioned; that of Michael Cacoyannis, with Zorba the Greek (1964) and his other films based on ancient tragedies. Pauline Kael seems to have enjoyed most of his films and has written very positive reviews, even for his less successful works, like The Trojan Women (1). David Thomson lavishes praise on his film Stella (1955) (2), while Ronald Bergan in Cacoyannis’ obituary talked about the “extraordinary energy and visual splendour” of his Zorba (3). Amongst Greek critics however, there still is a distinct ambivalence towards his work because of its uneven quality. Yet Cacoyannis’ development as a filmmaker needs special attention and reflects both his “artistic entanglements” as well as the conditions of producing films in Greece.

Zorba the Greek (Michael Cacoyannis, 1964)

The other filmmaker is Theo Angelopoulos, whose recent death in an accident caused world-wide sympathy and inspired a rather overcompensating re-evaluation of his films. Moreover a very important study by Andrew Horton (4) as well as significant interpretive essays by David Bordwell, Frederic Jameson, and Dan Georgakas (5) have elevated Angelopoulos to the status of a cinema master, next only to Antonioni, Bergman, Godard and Jansco, one of the truly ‘greats’ (6) of European cinema. Other names, however, are not well-known or indeed known at all. Nikos Koundouros for example, a director whose films could stand next to the best works by Carol Reed, Ken Loach and Werner Fassbinder, is almost completely unknown to the cinephiles of the world. The same can be said about Takis Kanellopoulos, Dinos Dimopoulos, Tonia Marketaki, Costas Ferris, film-makers whose work determined the development of the cinematic language in Greece. Of course a number of good films did succeed in breaking down the barriers of language and the constant need to explain them by referring to the political turmoil of the country. Certain films were semantically sufficient in themselves both aesthetically and from the point of their content. For example Angelopoulos’ The Travelling Players (1975) is a colossal masterpiece which transcends the specificities of its political references. However what is still needed is a thorough exploration of the complex social, technological and artistic processes that made Greek film industry so prolific between 1950 and 1980 while at the same time investigating the reasons for its demise in the 1980s and 1990s. Indeed it is important to study how a visual language is created and several decades later un-created by the same people who first imagined it—this I I believe one of the most intriguing aspects of Greek cinematic history.

However, despite the popularity of films like Ferris’ Rebetiko (1984), the success of Pandelis Voulagris’ Brides (2004), Yannis Smaragdis’ El Greco (2004) and Boulmetis’ Touch of Spice (2003), no systematic interest has been shown for the cinematic arts in Greece. The recent ‘weird wave’ (7) (Steve Rose), expressed through the wacky films of Yorgos Lanthimos and Athena Tsangari, has caused considerable stir in the international art-house scene; however, it   remains t o be seen how long the interest will last and what kind of critical discourse it will institute. (Lanthimos’ recent film Alps (2012) for example seems like an imitation of his own style showing thus signs of semantic and stylistic implosion.)

The two existing comprehensive histories of Greek cinema express the need for a historical contextualisation of film culture and industry in the country. Mel Schuster’s The Contemporary Greek Cinema (Scarecrow Press, 1979) the only history in English until recently, was written in the late seventies when Greek cinema was undergoing an important stylistic reorientation together with deep institutional reform. The book, despite being printed as a samizdat edition, captured the intense energy of the period and raised important questions about the ideology and the social impact of the films but kept short of providing a critical history of the cinematic production itself. My own study, A History of Greek Cinema (Continuum 2012) articulated its narrative through the implied dialogue between the films themselves. Trying to avoid the generalities of a grand narrative, parochial biographicism or facile sociological interpretations, it presented Greek cinematic history as a series of minor dialogues about social mobility, cultural memory, existential self-perception and formal construction in their interaction with cinema as an industry in the country. It also insisted on the interrelationship between the social and the aesthetic exploring how a non-perspectival visual culture discovered perspective through the camera and re-invented the realm of the visible through a unique form of realism, fully formed during the 1950s. However, more detailed and more focused studies have to be produced based on specific research and particular periods, personalities and individual films.

In this direction, Papadimitriou and Tzioumakis’ edited volume is a substantial and pioneering contribution towards the establishment of Greek Film studies as a legitimate field of research, one that is of international significance. Based on a conference under the same title, organised in Liverpool in 2008 (8), it consists of essays written by different scholars who tackle various aspects of film industry and film culture in Greece. Divided into four parts, ‘Approaches, Histories, Identity and Aesthetics’, the book is focused on the long duration of Greek cinema, its critical reception and contemporary interpretation as well as on the analysis of specific films.

The editors stress that the essays “cover a very broad historical and methodological spectrum” (p. 14) as different scholars foreground various a   aspects and questions about film production; indeed methodological diversity is one of the main virtues of the volume. They also indicate that more work on Greek cinema “would seek to uncover its inner workings and its relationship to the cinema of the rest of the world” (p. 14).

Dimitris Eleftheriotis’ first essay on Tassos B oulmetis’ A Touch of Spice (2003) provides an opportunity to examine the intricate links between national history, personal identity and cultural memory. With the aid of Julia Kristeva’s chora  Eleftheriotis examines the film as a space of colliding cultural representations  a space which “expresses its determination to make a mark in the world and in the process to take Greek cinema into the future that embraces those distinctly non-maternal (and historically absent) entities: new technology, ‘market-wise’ production and distribution practices and global accessibility” (p. 34). Certainly Eleftheriotis’ essay sets the standard for high quality discourse about Greek films, which until now have only been assessed or indeed interpreted through naive ideas of a persistent quest for ‘Greekness’, which by now are not only parochial and outdated, but indeed ideologically spurious and culturally regressive.

A Touch of Spice (Tassos Boulmetis, 2003)

Michalis Kokkonis’ essay on Greek blockbusters is equally interesting in its study of the film industry and its practices over the last sixty years, while Yvonne Alexia Kosma’s psychoanalytic approach to the otherwise rather innocuous comedy Yellow Gloves (Alekos Sakellarios, 1960) shows that, even though belatedly, we need to revisit such overlooked filmic texts and unpack their sometimes coded gender ideologies. The next three chapters examine the history of early Greek cinema and its gradual establishment of film culture in the country. Vassiliki Tistsopoulou affirms that the study of early Greek cinema “challenges early film studies to expand its theoretical and methodological scope so as to treat early cinema as the emblematic cultural product that it was” (p. 91). Yiannis Christofides’ and Melissanthi Saliba’s study on open-air cinemas in Athens explores them as the space where new urban identities emerged as the urbanised villagers watched the so-called foustanella genre reminding them their former rural self.  Finally Eliza Anna Delveroudi’s study on Silent Greek cinema is a systematic exploration of the ‘fascinating research field’ as the ‘prehistory of cinema’ in the country (p. 124). The final chapter in this section by Maria Stassinopoulou about the ‘possible narratives of the history of Greek cinema’ reflects systematically on the methodological aspects of such a project. Stassinopoulou stresses that this history could be written by ‘a team of researchers’ who could approach cinematic production in the country equipped with modern historiographical practices and better knowledge of the films themselves.

The third part of the book explores identity issues; it includes Papadimitriou’s contribution in which a new interpretation of the Greek film musical is attempted; papadimitrious concludes that “close analysis of its form and of the elements that constitute it show that the genre’s cultural function was to negotiate the tensions and the contradictions in Greek society that emerged from the rapid process of modernisation and social change in the 1960s.” (p. 164) Nikos Leros’ contribution on “Carnivalized Greekness” attempts a Bakthinian  analysis of the rather under-rated comedy by Stavros Tsiolis’ Ladies Don’t Cry (1992). The next contribution by Achilleas Hadjikyriacou  on representations of patriarchal m  asculinity in Cacoyannis’ Stella (1955) and the ruthless critique of the film by the Left is also extremely crucial in understanding the impact of modernisation on traditional gender perceptions. Finally, Gary  Needham’s study deals with the rather risqué topic of the international appeal of Greek soft porn films either dubbed into other languages or of foreign films representing Greece as a sexual paradise (something of which it never was).

Stella (Michael Cacoyannis, 1955)

The next two chapters by Eleftheria Thanoulis on Dinos Dimopoulos and Panayiota Mini on Takis Kanellopoulos are, to my understanding, extremely crucial to the overall value of the book. They study two of the most important and under-appreciated film makers in the country; Dimopoulos’ films are probably amongst the most successful and popular works which have determined the social imaginary in the public space with their symbols, music and characters (despite the fact that they were considered low art by the elitist leftists of the New Greek Cinema in the seventies). Thanouli explores his political motives and formal achievements in an exemplary essay which inspires people to revisit his work. The same can be claimed about Mini’s study of Kanellopoulos, a filmmaker who could have created a cult-following had he lived in another country. The formal analysis in both essays is extremely pertinent and shows the different, but highly complex and unique ‘visual schemata’ they invented.

Both Dimopoulos and Kanellopoulos frame the diverse space of creative responses to modernity from two opposite directions: from an Aristotelian-inspired structured narrative ‘emplotment’ of visuality, as is the case of Dimopoulos, and from t    he non-linear, modernist autonomisation of the visual over the narrative in   Kanellopoulos’ underrated visual essays. They both deserve further study because they encapsulate wider aesthetic questions and dilemmas about the social function of cinema and the role of the director as an artist. The final essay by Anna Poupou on the aesthetics of space in Greek films, especially during the period of urban sprawl in the sixties and seventies, shows the crucial relevance of filmic depictions for the study of the changes in the imaginative geography of Athens as recorded by the camera—proving indeed the anthropological significance of cinematic representations in times of social change while simultaneously providing a new understanding of realism as mode of representation in the films of the period.

As I have argued, Greek cinema is not only something to be discovered but a significant cultural production that must be discovered. Together with its international recognition, the process of discovering itself is equally important; and this collection of essays establishes the foundations for a novel and diversified approach to the discipline—what is needed is the appropriate conceptualisation of film culture within an approach delineating both the specificities and the commonalities of Greek cinema with other European and global traditions. The adventurous explorations, the sound suggestions and the vast research show that Papadimitriou and Tziounakis’ volume institutes a new beginning for the re-evaluation of Greek Cinema.

I hope that this will b ecome the starting point for a thorough, detailed and meticulous exploration of one of the most interesting and unknown cinematic traditions in Europe. Indeed, as part of the global cinema, or in relation to t ransnational aesthetics, Greek cinema has a style of its own, a style made out of what I called elsewhere numerous “inter-filmic transcriptions” mainly from Hollywood, Italian Neo-realism, French poetic realism, Soviet cinema, the English Documentary School, Bollywood, Turkish cinema and from many other sources. Greek cinematographers were extremely keen to emulate and “outwit” hegemonic filmic cultures. Their strengths are to be found in the polydialectical structuration of their films—that fact that is that the best Greek films were “spaces where contested truths coexisted in an uneasy and sometimes paradoxical interdependence” (9). Unfortunately, the Greek state was for almost eighty years extremely negative or patronising towards the medium and consequently its works never received the attention, or indeed the promotion and the distribution they deserved.

This book reinvents the discipline for the international reading public, experts or well-informed readers alike; and as such I am certain t hat it will inaugurate a period of many creative conversations about the specifics o f Greek cinema and its place in the history of global filmmaking. 

Lydia Papadimitriou & Yannis Tzioumakis (eds.) Greek Cinema, Texts, Histories, Identities, Intellect: Bristol/Chicago, 2012.

Endnotes

  1. “The flaws in the Michael Cacoyannis film of Euripides’ the Trojan Women seem unimportant compared to the simple fact that here is a movie of one of the supreme works of the theatre, and not a disgraceful movie, either.” Pauline Kael, Deeper into Movies, An Atlantic Monthly Press Book, Boston-Toronto, 1973, p. 300-305
  2. http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2011/jul/25/michael-cacoyannis-obituary
  3. Andrew Horton, The Films of Theo Angelopoulos: A Cinema of Contemplation, Princeton University Press, 1999
  4. All essays in Andrew Horton’s (ed.) The Last Modernist: the films of Theo Angelopoulos, Greenwood Press, 1997 and the seminal essay on Angelopoulos, by David Bordwell, Figures Traced in Light, On Cinematic Staging, University of California Press, 2005, pp. 140-185
  5. Ginette Vincendeau, Issues in European Cinema, in The Oxford Guide to Film Studies, ed. By John Hill and Pamela Church Gibson, Oxford University Press, 1998, p. 444
  6. http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2011/aug/27/attenberg-dogtooth-greece-cinema
  7. Read review in http://triceratops.brynmawr.edu/dspace/bitstream/handle/10066/6027/Smith_35_1.pdf?sequence=1
  8. Vrasidas Karalis, A History of Greek Cinema, Continuum, 2012, p. 285.

About The Author

Vrasidas Karalis teaches Modern Greek with the Department of Modern Greek at the University of Sydney. He has published studies on Sergei Eisenstein, Alfred Hitchcock, Theo Angelopoulos and Michael Cacoyannis. His latest book A History of Greek Cinema was released in 2012. He is currently working on a comprehensive study of the development of Greek cinema after 1950.