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Remembering Michael Cacoyannis

Posted: 07/26/11 10:45 AM ET

Michael Cacoyannis, the foremost Greek film director, passed away in Athens on July 25, 2011. He was born in Limassol, Cyprus on June 11, 1921, and was theatrically trained in London; after earning a law degree, he followed the path of his calling by becoming an actor for a short stint (playing the title role in Caligula by Albert Camus, cast by the author himself), and by producing programming for the BBC Overseas service. In 1951, he moved to Athens, and soon thereafter became an internationally-acclaimed, Oscar-winning film and stage director, screenwriter, editor, producer, and even costume-designer (for The Day the Fish Came Out). His first feature film, released in 1953-1954, Windfall in Athens, a comedy inspired by the city's exuberant street life, earned a rapturous reception in Athens and was chosen for the gala premiere at the Edinburgh film festival. Cacoyannis launched his international film career with Stella (1955), which won him a Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film and launched the film career of Melina Mercouri as femme fatale and symbol of resistance to the patriarchal code. A number of notable films followed: A Girl in Black (1956), A Matter of Dignity (1958; Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film), Zorba the Greek (1963-1964; 3 Oscars, 6 nominations), The Trojan Women (1970-1971), Attila '74 (a harrowing documentary on the Turkish invasion of Cyprus, 1974-1975), Iphigenia (1976-1977, Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Film), Up, Down and Sideways (1992). Whether the background is the local village or the Cretan landscape, Cacoyiannis' cinema is decisively ethnographic, depicting the culture of the peasants as an insular, contained ethnoscape, often playing to Western expectations by promoting the image of an exotic Modern Greece, as seen in the perpetuation of primitivist stereotypes in Zorba, and the exploration of the rural in melodramas dealing with family issues, such as A Girl in Black.

Cacoyannis appropriated the classics in order to circumvent the censorship of the junta and speak out allegorically against the oppressive regime. He produced numerous stage and film adaptations of ancient Greek plays, duly praised in international film circles: Euripides' Electra (1961-1962); The Trojan Women, (1970-1971), Iphigenia in Aulis (1976-1977), Bacchae, Medea, Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, and Aristophanes' Lysistrata. His Euripidean Trojan trilogy was especially close to his heart. After Electra, Cacoyannis became convinced that the three plays could work as a unity, and reworked the material to create resonances with Greek political history, the Greek Civil War (Electra), the colonels' junta (Trojan Women), and the Turkish invasion of Cyprus (Iphigenia). Mikis Theodorakis composed the musical score for all three films.

Cacoyannis' stage adaptation of the Trojan Women ran in New York for two consecutive years, amounting to a total of over 600 performances (1964-1966). The story showcased the brutality exerted by the ruthless Greek conquerors upon unarmed Trojan victims of war against the backdrop of the charred ruins of the city of Troy and Cacoyannis ends it with a dedication "to those who fearlessly oppose oppression of man by man." Allusions to the colonels' abuses and the snuffing out of dissident voices are hard to miss. Katharine Hepburn as Hecuba, the Trojan queen who has lost her sons and city, opens the play prostrate on the scarred earth of Troy towards the end of the siege, after a failed attempt to throw herself into its smoldering ruins, she says, "Up from the ground, trembling body." Ionesco "came out happy" after watching this disturbing film. Cacoyannis noted that for American audiences, the story was glaringly reminiscent of the sufferings of the Hiroshima victims, whereas in Paris, the same play in Jean-Paul Sartre's translation, with an ending reworked by Cacoyannis and an associate of his, summoned up memories of the plight of Algerians under French colonial rule. In Iphigenia, Clytemnestra's cry at the news of the army's verdict becomes a public outcry for the plight of war-torn Cyprus in 1974. Cacoyannis' cinematic adaptations of the three Euripidean tragedies were duly praised in international film circles. He was congratulated both for respecting the ancient dramatic conventions and for putting "the spirit of Euripides' play into film terms," even "improving Euripides" (comment by Hugh Lloyd-Jones, then Regius Professor of Greek, at Oxford University). Eugène Ionesco was one of his most fervent admirers, and hailed Cacoyannis' Iphigenia as a masterpiece. "Along with Euripides, Cacoyannis has risen to the summit of art and human knowledge. This is the most beautiful film I have ever seen," Ionesco exclaimed, where "heaven and earth meet."

Since 2004, Michael Cacoyannis concentrated all his efforts towards establishing a charitable foundation in Athens, his last "gift" to his beloved adopted country, Greece. The aim of the foundation that bears his name is "to support, preserve and promote the arts of Theatre and Cinema." Cacoyannis will be buried in the premises of his foundation on Thursday, July 28, 2011.

Katerina Zacharia is Professor of Classics at Loyola Marymount University and advisor for Letters and the Arts for the Michael Cacoyannis Foundation. The blog is adapted from a published article by the author in her volume Hellenisms: Culture, Identity and Ethnicity from Antiquity to Modernity (Ashgate 2008: 321-53).