Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Electra (1962)

[Image: Electra at the Tomb of Agamemnon,
Frederic Leighton, c. 1868, Public Domain]

So far in my European cultural odyssey, I've been focusing pretty much exclusively on ancient Greek history. I do want to try to broaden out a bit (eventually!) but Greek history has been the natural starting point. So much of modern European language, identity, culture and history has been shaped by the Greeks (and later, to an even greater extent, by the Romans) that it's easy to forget about everything the Greek's borrowed from other cultures. This is a mistake, and it's something which cinema in particular has often had problems with.

It's also something I'm going to have to bear in mind. As an absolute beginner when it comes to Greek history, one of the ways I've been getting acquainted with it is by watching old movies. I like old movies. They've given me an easy "way in" to Greek mythology. But it's a risky approach. Watching the films before I'm familiar with the original history and mythology may very well be colouring my perceptions of the ancient Greek world.

In particular, the influence of "non-Western" cultures is something rarely highlighted in films. Greek (especially Athenian) culture is always contrasted sharply with, for example, Persian and Egyptian culture. There is no overlap between the different Mediterranean civilisations. The more I read, the more this seems like poppycock. Balderdash. Piffle, even.

The problem may be this: so far, I've almost exclusively been watching Hollywood movies; Jason and the Argonauts, Clash of the Titans, The 300 Spartans, and so on. All very accessible to me as a modern Western viewer, all with standard tropes and stereotypes, but I may as well be watching Disney's Hercules in terms of how much they're going to teach me about day-to-day life in ancient Greece.

So, for a change, I recently hunted down a non-Hollywood movie by a Greek director called Michael Cacoyannis. The movie is Electra (1962) and, much like Lars von Trier's brilliant Medea, it's based on a play by Euripides. (As a side note, I'm starting to really like this Euripides chap; he was ahead of his time. Women, for example, are usually at the centre of his plays.)

The thing most immediately obvious about Electra (beyond the fact that it's in black and white) is that the dialogue is entirely in Greek. It might sound like a small point, but having watched all these Hollywood movies, it's easy to forget that the ancient Greeks didn't have American accents (or booming, Shakespearean stage-accents with excellent timbre). Greek sounds alien. Foreign. In fact, it sounds (to my untrained ear) closer to Arabic or Persian.

On the other hand, Hollywood's Greek (i.e. English) would have sounded equally strange to the ancient Greeks. To them, all foreigners sounded strange. Foreigners sounded like they were babbling a meaningless stream of noise: "bar, bar, bar, bar" - from which we get the word "barbarian." Foreign languages were "all Greek" to the Greeks and foreigners were just babbling. I suppose a modern take on the word barbarian might be a "babble-arian."

Anyway, I wouldn't say that Greek sounds barbaric (with all the connotations that word entails) but it certainly sounds a lot like "bar, bar, bar, bar." The point is: the language of the birthplace of Western thought sounds almost... Eastern.

Even more important than the language, though, is the costume design. With the exception of Electra (who, following the death of her father, cuts her hair short and wanders about with her head shamelessly exposed) all of the women in the movie are veiled. This is dramatic, and immediately distorts the familiar Greek stereotypes. The veil is something more commonly associated with the Middle East, and to see it being used in the birthplace of the "democratic Western tradition" is striking. Yet, according to an excellent book I'm currently reading on the subject, the women of ancient Greece did go veiled. Almost all of the women in the ancient Mediterranean and Near East went veiled.

Electra, then, is a fantastic antidote to the Hollywoodised version of ancient Greece. To cap it off, there's a hypnotic performance by Irene Papas as Electra, and the artistic use of veiled female bodies (white faces against black cloth) is stunning.

Well worth it.

Rating: 9 out of 10
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