One film journalist’s stream-of-consciousness cinematic journey through the pandemic, Part 104
By Laurence Lerman / New York City
As this week’s Reel Streaming is published, I am seeking adventure abroad and making my way from Athens to the island of Corfu.
That’s right, I’m in the middle of a week-long visit to Greece, that ol’ cradle of civilization. Then again, maybe not, depending upon who you talk to, as there are plenty of scholars who argue that the big cradles of civilization were Mesopotamia, ancient Egypt and other regions, just as they may consider “New World” civilization cradles to have emerged from Peru and Mexico.
Let’s just consider Greece to be a cradle of Western civilization or, at the very least, a pretty darned important civilization that laid the groundwork for a lot of the societal behavior, artistic endeavors, politics and culture that emerged around the Western world over the subsequent centuries.
Though Greece has never been known for having an exceptional history of cinema, it is worth noting that in terms of both cinema and theater, the Greeks are generally considered the ones who came up with the idea of enacting a story using actors and the artistic element before a live, assembled audience.
The word “cinema” itself has a Greek derivation. It comes from the Greek kinemotographos or kinema and grapho: kinema (cinema) meaning movement, and grapho, which means to write, or record. Thus, cinema is a kind of recorded movement or moving pictures.
Or something like that. As there are various arguments about the cradle of civilization, so too are there are a number of explanations as to the origin of that word. Just ask the French. And you’re hearing this from a bona fide cinephile (phile taken from the ancient Greek verb philo, which means to love.)
Whatever the history, there have still been plenty of special films to emerge from there. Or movies simply about the country and its culture, old and new.
I offer to you ten of them (without the benefit of having consulted the Oracle of Delphi):
The Traveling Players (1979)
Directed by Theodoros Angelopoulos
Writer/director Angelopoulos traces the history of mid-20th century Greece through the exploits of a traveling theater company making its way across the country and mounting a period play along the way. Presenting the history of his country from a decidedly left-wing perspective, Angelopoulos' four-hour drama was cited by the great Akira Kurosawa as one of his favorite films.
The Ogre of Athens (1956)
Directed by Nikos Koundouros
A fascinating satire taking on government oversight, loss of individuality and Hollywood’s film noir genre, Ogre weaves a tale of a mild bank clerk (popular Greek leading man Dinos Iliopoulos) who is mistaken for a fierce and infamous wanted criminal. It turns out to be a pretty good life for the banker—at first.
Directed by Costa-Gavras
Greek ex-patriot filmmaker Costa-Gavras’ political thriller is a thinly fictionalized account of the events surrounding the 1963 assassination of the democratic Greek politician Grigoris Lambrakis by right-wing zealots. The filmmaker’s directorial debut was one of the few films to ever be nominated for Academy Awards for both Best Picture and Best Foreign Language Film.
Zorba the Greek (1964)
Directed by Michael Cacoyannis
Starring Anthony Quinn as the titular boisterous Crete peasant, director/writer/producer/editor Michael Cacoyannis’s international hit is based on Nikos Kazantzakis 1946 bestselling novel by the same name. Quinn’s performance remains iconic, as does the Greek folk dance known as the sirtaki, which was more-or-less introduced to the world by this movie.
Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos
One of leading filmmakers to emerge from Greece in the past 25 years, Lanthimos’s breakthrough movie is a psychological drama about a husband and wife who shield their children from the world outside of their fenced-in property—well into their adulthood. Dark, strong and strangely elegant, the movie launched its filmmaker onto the international stage, and his subsequent making of higher-budgeted, English language films like 2018’s The Favourite.
Never on Sunday (1960)
Directed by Jules Dassin
The wonderful Melina Mercouri won Best Actress honors at Cannes for her portrayal of Greek prostitute Ilya, who happily works the port of Piraeus six days a week. Writer/director Jules Dassin, Mercouri’s future husband, co-stars in this free-spirited rom-com as an American classical scholar who attempts to steer Ilya’s life in a different direction.
My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002)
Directed by Joel Zwick
This is probably the first film the majority of contemporary filmgoers think of when asked to name a Greek movie (if indeed they are ever asked!). A fun family affair written by and starring Nia Vardalos as a middle-class Greek American woman getting ready to say “I do” to a charming WASP (John Corbett). This surprise smash spawned a short-lived 2003 TV series and a 2016 sequel—with a third one on the way next year. The films all co-star the irrepressible Lainie Kazan and Andrea Martin, so what’s not to like?
The Guns of Navarone (1961)
Directed by J. Lee Thompson
One of the most rousing, big-budget WWII adventure films of the Sixties stars Gregory Peck, David Niven and Anthony Quinn as members of an Allied commando unit tasked to destroy an impregnable German fortress on an island in the Aegean Sea. Leading Greek actress Irene Pappas provides the feminine touch for this mission movie shot primarily on the island of Rhodes.
Directed by Costa Ferris
The winner of the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival in 1984, this lively musical tells the story of rebetiko, the bluesy, bouzouki-infused urban Greek music that grew to prominence in the early decades of the 20th century. It’s all seen through the eyes of young Armenian-Greek singer Marika Ninou.
Jason and the Argonauts (1963) / Clash of the Titans (1981)
Directed by Don Chaffey / Desmond Davis
Though the tales were often greatly altered from their oral and literary sources, Greek mythology was introduced to generations of film fans through Hollywood fantasy films, led by a pair featuring the stop-motion creations of special effects genius Ray Harryhausen. The story of Jason and his quest for the Golden Fleece features a wondrous rendering of the many-headed hydra in Jason and the Argonauts (limited to only seven heads here due to budget restraints!); Clash recounts the myth of Perseus with Harryhausen’s creatures and an all-star cast led by Laurence Olivier as—who else?—Zeus.
Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.