"The day my mother was murdered wasn't just any day to her. It was a specific day, a specific hour, a specific minute. It was a specific second when they pulled the trigger, and she was still alive one thousandth of a second later when the bullet killed her."
So responds New York Times reporter Nicholas Gage (John Malkovich) to his wife's suggestion that he abandon his 30-year preoccupation with exposing the circumstances surrounding his mother Eleni's wrongful trial and death during the 1948 purges in Greece. Haunted by the memory of his mother being taken to a People's Democratic Army work camp just prior to his successful escape from Greece at the age of 9, Gage is determined to bring his mother's assassins to justice before the 30-year statute of limitations on war crimes runs out.
In the 1981 bestseller Eleni, Gage reported the results of his researches as well as set down his own recollections of what it was like to live in Greece during both World War II and the Greek Civil War. The result was characterized by a judicious mix of soft-soap elegizing about Gage's happy life with his mother and sisters before Greece's Civil War and hard-core indictments of the men who shattered their peaceful idyll.
Adapting the volume for the big screen, Gage has sacrificed much of the undercover reportage that made Eleni such a good read. He relies instead on a top-heavy selection of sentimental flashbacks featuring Eleni selflessly ministering to the needs of her children, sanctifying her as the archtypical Grecian mother-martyr. In so doing, Gage forgoes the realistic context essential to the docu-drama style he is ostensibly seeking (and had achieved in the book), ending up instead with a tear-soaked, superficial Monday Night at the Movies.
In the title role, Kate Nelligan unfortunately does nothing to diminish Gage's beatific image of Eleni. Shot through a bright yellow screen, Nelligan positively glows with the radiance of the blessed. In one scene, she has to lug a huge trunk full of rare American goodies up the hill next to her house, drawing a clear analogy between the soon-to-be betrayed Eleni and the martyred Christ making his ascent up Calgary Hill. As she reaches the top, she announces to Nicholas, God and anyone else within hearing, "Nicolai Gatzuiannus, your father is alive!" with all the verbal presence of someone who expects to be quoted by the Lord Jehovah.
In a like manner, she goes about such mundane daily chores as gathering the firewood and hoeing the garden, as if she realized that someday they would be recorded for posterity: self-conscious sainthood.
To picture Nelligan as Gage's angelic mother, imagine Sally Field as the widowed farm wife in Places in the Heart. But unlike Field, whose film character admittedly has a much less turbulent life story than does Eleni, Nelligan is unable to bring her character to life with remotely human inflections or gestures.
To be fair, even if the material that Nelligan is given to work with is a bit unbelievable, her performance as a desperate mother who willingly sacrifices her own life in order that the lives of her children can be saved is unforgettable. Gage's bigger-than-life size version of his mother lingers indelibly.
Take, for example, her contribution to the film's most heart-wrenching scene, that of Eleni's execution. Silhouetted against the jagged cliffs of rural Greece, Nelligan as Eleni stands erect in front of a makeshift firing line. In sharp contrast to her fellow "criminals" she looks her murderers directly in the eye. As the riflists take aim, she throws her arms up in a gesture of defiance, glances heavenwards, and shrieks "My childrr-ee-nn!"
If Nelligan manages to redeem herself with bombast, Malkovich as her less-than-saintly son is an utter bombastic disappointment. Where Malkovitch was superb in earlier off-beat roles as the photographer in The Killing Fields and the blind boarder in Places in the Heart, his portrayal of Gage is shamefully one-sided and wholly unappealing. Brooding both in his personal and professional lives, he would seem an unlikely candidate for the type of altruistic soul-searching chronicled in the book and the film. Even his rigorous investigative reporting, which includes pulling a gun on his mother's executioner, would seem to disqualify him as the son of so godlike a mother. By the film's conclusion, we tend to agree with a childhood friend of Gage's who wonders what he and Gage could have done as children to make their mothers love them as much as they did.
Clearly, Eleni is not a film for the faint of heart, meticulously depicting a son's lifelong agony at the premature death of his mother. It is, however, an important film, confronting head-on the issue of the too easily ignored war crimes committed in Greece under the aegis of the People's Democratic Government. Where the film suffers as a realistic drama, it redeems itself as a much-needed look at the past.