The Gods and War
With “Iphigenia”, director Michael Cacoyannis succeeds in giving the feel of Greek theater tragedy to the screen and it is said that he is the only director who has been able to do so. He has written his screenplay based upon the original by Euripdes is one of the most difficult of the tragedies to film. In order to film this, he had to deconstruct the original and find a way to present the tragedy in a logical and chronological order and thus having it play like modern movie goers are used to seeing.
Cacoyannis also added some characters to his film that do not appear in Euripides’ tragedy: Odysseus, Calchas, and the army. He did so to make some of Euripides’ points regarding war, the Church, and Government clearer. The ending is somewhat more ambiguous than the ending of Euripides.
Shot on location at Aulis, we see some beautiful shots of Greece. The harshness of the landscape fits the souls of the characters and reflects their torment. The performances led by Costa Kazakos (Agamemnon), Irene Papas (Clytemnestra), and Tatiana Papamoschou (Iphigenia) are absolutely beautiful. Kazakos and Papas embody the sublimity of the classical Greece tragedy. Agamemnon is extremely down-to-earth who looks very powerful when he looks into the camera. He needs no words to reveal the unbelievable torment he suffers. As Clytemnestra, Irene Papas is the modern quintessence of classic Greek plays. She is terrible in her anguish, and even more so for what we know will be her vengeance. Tatiana Papamoskou, in her first role on the screen, is outstanding in her portrayal of the innocent Iphigenia that contrasts with Kazakos’ austere depiction of her father, Agamemnon.
We also have Odysseus, a sly, scheming politician, Achilles, a vain, narcissistic warrior, Menalaus, self centered, obsessed with his honor, eager to be avenged, and to have his wife and property restored. Everything is the height of realism and this is a film that does quite well without Hollywood touches and flourishes. The music of Mikis Theodorakis intensifies what we see on the screen.
We gain considerable insight into the lost world of ancient Greek thought that was the crucible for so much of our modern civilization. We lean about ourselves as individuals and as social and political creatures. Euripides questions the value of war and patriotism when measured against the simple virtues of family and love, and reflects on woman’s vulnerable position in a world of manly violence. In his adaptation of Euripides’ tragedy, Cacoyannis revisits all of these themes and does so in a modern, clear and dramatic fashion.
The relationships governing the political machinations are demonstrated with clarity and we certainly see that war corrupts and destroys the human soul to such an extent that neither the individual nor the group can function normally any longer. However, Menelaus, whose honor has been tarnished by his own wife’s elopement with her lover, is an exception to this —he is the only character whose reason for going to war has to do with his wife, Helen. Agamemnon is thirsty for power, Odysseus is greedy and Achilles wants glory.
(the army, Odysseus), or glory (Achilles). Helen actually became the reason for the Trojan War and that war we see here has been stripped of the glamour that Homer added and there is no religious sanctioning. Here it is just an imperialist venture, caused primarily by the desire for material gain. Anything else is pretext.
We also see the conflict between church and state with Calchas, representing the Church and feeling the challenge of his own priestly authority and using it to try to destroy Agamemnon for the insult to the Goddess he serves and he tells him to sacrifice his daughter. In consenting to the sacrifice, Agamemnon comes close to his moral undoing, however, in refusing, he loses his power over the masses (his army), who are brainwashed by religion. Agamemnon sees it as a game. But he must go along with the charade whether he honestly believes in the Gods or not, until he realizes, too late, that he has caused himself to commit a despicable crime.
Was this a sacrifice or was it murder? Can we even tell the difference between the two? By focusing on the violent and primitive horror of a human sacrifice–and, worst of all, the sacrifice of one’s own child–Euripides/Cacoyannis have created a drama that is at once deeply political and agonizingly personal. It touches on a most complex and delicate ethical problem facing any society: the dire conflict between the needs of the individual versus those of the society. In the case of Iphigenia, however, as in the Biblical tale of Abraham and Isaac, the father is asked to kill his own child, by his own hand. We want to know what kind of God would insist on such an action? Can it be just or moral, even if divinely inspired? Does Iphigenia’s sacrificial death differ from the deaths of all the sons and daughters who are being sent to war? These are the questions raised by the film.
Clytemnestra begged her husband not to go through with the sacrifice but he refuses to listen. Realizing that her death is inevitable, Iphigenia bravely walks up the hillside steps to the sacrificial altar dressed in her wedding dress, saying death will be a wedding, and forgives her father.
The film brilliantly captures the stark tragic mood of the myth and shows this classic Greek theater production in a memorizing way that’s never before been realized on the screen as powerfully as it is here.