A Tragedy--but not a Total Loss

Iphigenia Directed by Michael Cacoyannis at the Orson Welles

TO THE ANCIENT GREEK DRAMATIST, the spoken word was a new-found tool with which images could be sculpted, ideas persuasively conveyed, and emotions rendered with vivid eloquence; to the visually-oriented modern film-maker, it is a pain in the ass. In movie versions of great poetic dramas, nervous directors often move their cameras too much, nor enough, or at the wrong times, and the result is that visual and verbal elements constantly elbow each other aside, yielding neither great drama nor great film, but a tentative mess with little emotional force of its own. It is highly significant that perhaps the fullest realization of Shakespeare on film, Akira Kurosawa's Castle of the Spider's Web (Macbeth), is in Japanese.

Michael Cacoyannis's Iphigenia is "based" on Euripides's Iphigenia at Aulis, but has been freely "translated" by the director from ancient Greek verse into modern Greek prose. At least half of the words have been discarded in the process. Something is inevitably lost, but the result is thoroughly satisfying cinematically, an impressive film which comes within striking distance of greatness, only to blunder shamefully in its final moments.

Iphigenia at Aulis unquestionably stands as one of the most timeless and powerful of the Greek tragedies. After the Trojan Paris elopes with Menelaus's wife Helen, the Greek kings and their armies converge on Aulis, from where, under the command of Menelaus's brother, Agamemnon, they will sail to reclaim the woman. There is no wind, however, to blow their sails, and the army becomes restless and angry under the intense heat. The prophet Calchas tells Agamemnon that in order for the gods to provide a wind, he must sacrifice his eldest daughter, Iphigenia. Horrified by the idea at first, Agamemnon soon yields to his brother's urgings and his own ambition; he sends for Iphigenia with a note explaining that she is to come to Aulis to marry the young king Achilles (who is ignorant of his role in the plan). Iphigenia arrives with her mother, Clytemnestra, but it is not long before she discovers what her true function is to be. A tortured Agamemnon and sorrowful Menelaus can do nothing to stop what has been started; Calchas informs the army of his prophecy, and the soldiers cry out for Iphigenia's death. Achilles, angered by the use of his name to lure the girl from her home, and moved by Clytemnestra's pleas to save her innocent daughter, prepares to single-handedly do battle with the Greek army. But at the last moment, after previously pleading for her own life, Iphigenia decides to face her tragic fate for the sake of a unified Greece, and mounts the stairs to the sacrificial alter in dignity and triumph.

Cacoyannis's adaptation incorporates spectacle and visual grandeur, opening up the play logically, to include scenes with the army, and beginning the film with early events which are only recounted in the original. His prose, at least as translated by the subtitles (admittedly a shaky source) is spare and tight, penetrating immediately to the emotional core of every speech and rendering it as simply as possible. What has been cut from the dialogue is most always conveyed visually, usually through the expressions of the actors. Cacoyannis drops the chorus, the most glaringly unrealistic element of the play, although fragments of its lines occasionally turn up in the songs Clytemnestra sings to Iphigenia, or in the infrequent exclamations of a group of girls travelling with the two.

The director's best work is in the scenes one would think most difficult: the long speeches and confrontations which account for most of Euripides's play. Even relatively uninteresting scenes, the early arguments between Agamemnon and Menelaus, for example, are photographed with subtlety and bursting with dramatic urgency. There is not one such scene in the original that is not splendidly filmed and acted; had Cacoyannis stuck only to these, with a few choice atmospheric shots in between, his film would have been nearly flawless.


But this is, after all, the beginning of the Trojan war, and that calls for all sorts of cinematic embellishments. Euripides's play, like most good Greek tragedies, is notable for its economy, not of language, but of encounters. The scenes which Cacoyannis writes in are stirringly photographed but dramatically useless, and they seem even more gratuitous when invoking countless cliches. Take the first moments in the film: after the opening shot of a spear and some armor sitting on a rock in the hot sun, the camera rousingly pans the still ships, accelerating as it goes along, and ends in a shot of the entire beach, covered with naked, sweating Greek soldiers. In a moment, the Greeks divide respectfully into two lines, as Agamemnon and Menelaus ride through. Suddenly, a man keels over in the path of the horses. He is duly removed. This is to show you how hot it is. Or take the scene in Argos, when a messenger delivers the letter from Agamemnon to Clytemnestra. She leans out, over the beautiful mountains, and calls, "Iph-i-gen-ia!" (Echo: "Iphigenia, Iphigenia.') The camera zooms down the mountain, music swelliing, Iphigenia whirling around into the frame, arms outstretched, and suddenly we are in the midst of The Sound of Music. Cacoyannis also enjoys choreographing heads as they turn toward one another, apparently fantasizing that he is a thinking man's Busby Berkley. And at the climax of the film, in a stunning shot, the entire army spills over the top of a hill to seize Iphigenia, and patiently stands there for twenty minutes, respectfully quiet, while Iphigenia delivers her final few speeches to Achilles and Clytemnestra (not one soldier even topples over from the heat).

THESE FLAWS ARE amusing and tolerable, but they are overshadowed by a profound and blatant misinterpretation. At the end of the film, after Iphigenia has mounted the steps to the alter (they take forever to climb; the sequence is twice as long as it should be), and uttered her beautiful last line, "Sweet light, farewell," the winds rise violently and the army heads for the ships cheering, Iphigenia has not yet been sacrificed; Agamemnon cries out and dashes up the steps, while she, hearing his cry, struggles to escape from Calchas and his priests, who are pulling her, screaming, toward the altar. It's Saturday-afternoon-at-the-movies stuff, and it's quite horrible. This manifestly changes the meaning of Iphigenia's death: apart from showing her dissolve into a screaming little girl, when the play leaves her toweringly resolute, her death has become meaningless--she should never have climbed those stairs in the first place. If you thin about this entire movie; best to lop it off mentallyand forget it as quickly as possible. This leaves th performances. unvaryingly superb and thrillingly animated.

Irene Papas as Clytemnestra could never be glowering passion, a force of will that can crush her hysterical husband and, when driven, explode into she literally raises a standstorm. The final shot in her husband, practically whispering, "Just wait Costa Kozakos is a weakling caught between his fierce ambition and festering conscience; the actor, of the man, his impotence, with remarkable pathos. Carras's Menelaus, a weasely little fellow who can nonetheless rouse himself to noble, if ineffectual inch a Greek hero, from his physical splendor to that touch of reckless, defiant pride.

Tatiana Papamoskou (Iphigenia), Cacoyannis's twelve year old "discovery," is not the lovely golden-haired heroine of our imaginations, resembling, in fact, a rather ungainly giraffe. She does, however, have an innocence and sensitivity which are beautiful in themselves, and she is radiant in her final speeches and in the ascent to her death, all the more heroic for an occasional, involuntary tremble.

George Arvantis's cinematography has both sweep and intimacy, although there is too much use of the zoom lens--a noxious device--especially on Agamemnon, who is on the receiving end several times in the first few scenes. Mikis Theodorakis's music begins execrably, thudding around in the first half-hour like a discard from some horror movie, but it begins to wake up with the arrival in Aulis of Iphigenia, and in the final scene provides lively, uplifting support during her climb. This is music that suggests a quiet grandeur without a hint of soupiness.

But then, this is no Romeo and Juliet score, and Cacoyannis is nt to euripideswhat Franco Zefferellis is to Shakespeare: a perpetrator of soppy drivel for the masses. Iphigenia has the power and appeal to be relatively popular, and if you disregard the final scene, the only thing the movie sacrifices is Iphigenia herself.

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