The Trojan Trilogy
by Michael Cacoyannis / 2

The director has given us a work that is both dramatic and grandiose, full of fury and grace

By Francis Ouellet

Previously published August 19, 2016
Katherine Hepburn et Geneviève Bujold

Katherine Hepburn and Geneviève Bujold

In 1971, ten years after the release of Electra, Michael Cacoyannis directed the second part of his trilogy, The Trojan Women. The story takes place a few weeks before the events recounted in Electra. We are witness to the last days of Troy, defeated and in ruins. The Greeks are preparing to leave the once-proud city for their homeland, their ships laden with the last of the riches taken from the Trojans.

The story is told through different female characters, all shattered by war, hopeless yet retaining a dignified presence: Hecuba, the fallen queen of Troy, played by the great Katherine Hepburn; Cassandra (Geneviève Bujold), princess and oracle, who predicted the victory of the Greeks, but whom no one believed; and finally Hélen (Irène Papas), the one through whom it all began, for whom hundreds of men died, the unwitting instigator of the city’s terrible fate.

Once again, enacting that implacable destiny from which there is no escape, Cacoyannis offers us a grave and grandiose work, full of fury and moments of pure grace. Yet, compared to Electra, the film seems to lack naturalness and authenticity. This is undoubtedly due to the international cast, although of very high quality, and to the fact that the film was shot in Spain, and in English rather than in Greek, since it was a co-production of England, the United States, and Greece. Cacoyannis has often been criticized for this, but in the absence of sufficient Greek capital, could he really have done otherwise? In any case, these criticisms are pointless, and it would be churlish to dramatize the fact: this is a great pacifist film and one of the finest cinematic representations of the Trojan War.

Once again, enactng that implacable destiny from which there is no escape, Cacoyannis offers us a grave and grandiose work, full of fury and moments of pure grace.

Tatiana Papamoschou et Kostas Kazakos

Tatiana Papamoschou and Kostas Kazakos

In 1977, Michael Cacoyannis presented the conclusion of his Trojan trilogy: Iphigenia, a true jewel of the seventh art. It has the same grace and tragic, desperate beauty as Electra, but is truly transfigured by Giorgos Arvanitis‘s sunny photography and Mikis Theodorakis‘s epic yet restrained music. Rarely has the adaptation of a literary work for the big screen reached such grandeur, as much for its faithfulness to the original text as for its absolutely admirable pictorial representation.

We find ourselves plunged into the events leading up to the Trojan War. The Greeks are about to leave their shores, but doubts beset their leader, King Agamemnon. Obeying the oracles that order a sacrifice to the gods, Agamemnon delivers his own daughter, Iphigenia, despite the pleas of his wife, Clytemnestra. With this gesture, the king sets in motion the dark events that will lead to his death and curse his lineage.

Once again, we find this desperate tone and these beings torn apart by the actions they must perform, reluctantly and against their will. Under the blazing sun, in full light, with no hope of hiding, the characters clash and tear each other apart, unable to escape this treacherous life, circling like vultures around the young and beautiful Iphigenia (magnificent Tatianna Papamoskou), the symbol of innocence and purity, resigned to going through with her cruel destiny.

We won’t soon forget the final scene, when Clytemnestra, to whom Irene Papas offers her severe beauty, observes the Greek ships leaving the shore, her gaze charged with anger and sadness, the thirst for vengeance already poisoning her heart. Once again, Cacoyannis has done justice to Euripides’ work, and done it prodigiously.

‘The director also succeeded in surrounding himself with highly talented actors who, under his direction, have found the very essence of ancient tragedy, making it their own and modernizing it.’

Some critics and historians, such as Georges Sadoul, have already suggested that Cacoyannis merely adapted great plays for the screen. In my opinion, nothing could be further from the truth. Not only is Cacoyannis’s adaptation impeccable, but his portrayal, both in terms of staging and the extreme care taken with photography and music, has enabled literary works that are over two millennia old to be given a new lease of life, and to touch the hearts of a whole new audience.

The director also succeeded in surrounding himself with highly talented actors, led by Irene Papas, who, under his direction, found the very essence of ancient tragedy, making it their own and modernizing it. Moreover, his role as a leading light of Greek cinema in the second half of the twentieth century cannot be doubted, as he gave Greek national cinema a scope and audience it had not previously possessed.

Michael Cacoyannis thus paved the way for other Greek filmmakers, such as Theo Angelopoulos and Costas Ferris, to make their mark at major festivals. He was a great filmmaker and a first-rate artist. These three exceptional works, wild and beautiful, are testimony to that.

Beautiful DVD versions of Electra and The Trojan Women , produced respectively by MGM and Kino Lorber, are available on the market and can be easily found on specialized websites such as Amazon or Ebay. As for Iphigenia, there was a DVD version released by MGM in 2007, but it is rather rare, and often exorbitantly priced.

Featured image: Astianax, public domain
Other images: Michael Cacoyannis Foundation
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Francis Ouellet has always been madly in love with cinema, animation and comic strips. This obsession with images, movement, light and shadow led to a career in advertising and graphic communications, where, for over twenty years now. But that doesn’t stop him from continuing to work, in his spare time (when there is any), on various small animation and comic strip projects.

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