Biopic as kitsch nationalism
Most national film industries have a Yannis Smaragdis. Living in France, I can’t help notice the numerous films that deal with renowned French artists, notorious kings and queens, fashion icons, tragic songstresses. In other words, what makes France cultivated, cultured and – the buzzword of our times – “great”. Hollywood of course is the epicenter of biopics and films that praise America, American culture, history and heroes. Be it Michael Bay and his hyper masculine pageants of the US military or Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998) and Lincoln (2012). Then there is also the UK with Oscar favorite The King’s Speech (Tom Hooper, 2010), Abdul and Victoria (Stephen Frears 2017) and the crude nationalism of Mel Gibson’s Braveheart (1995).
Yannis Smaragdis is one of Greece’s most popular and successful filmmakers in the domestic box office. He started his career in 1972 but came to prominence with El Greco in 2007 which can be classified as a blockbuster based on its immense budget and record box office sales ($11,000,000 or 1,375,000 tickets). Smaragdis’s film has all the hallmarks of a biopic: it deals with a historical figure, the painter Domenicos Theotokopoulos (known as “El Greco”), follows a rather linear narrative that documents various stages of the artist’s life and focuses on a crucial time of his trajectory which allegedly determined his place in (art) history.
Just by the film’s trailer, it is obviously the outcome of the director’s political agenda which he himself declared in relation to El Greco’s follow-up, O Theos Agapa to Chaviari/God Loves Caviar (2012): “My next film will console Greeks and lift their spirit in these harsh times”. God Loves Caviar was released at an ideal point for the director, when Greece’s fascist party Golden Dawn was gaining in popularity, capitalizing on the low morale of Greeks who in the years of the financial crisis see themselves as a marginal people in Europe, torn between modernization and national emancipation. If anything else, this was the time to enhance national sentiments and “make Greeks feel better for themselves”, by parading national identity and culture through films about “great Greeks”. The latter was the title of a 2009 program by the local broadcaster Skai, a channel that openly sides with conservative Right party Nea Dimokratia and which has employed at numerous instances a populist and xenophobic rhetoric. What’s more, its owner, Yannis Alafouzos, has a stake in the so-called “Paradise Papers” which has exposed offshore accounts by the world’s leading 1%. The show was indeed called “Great Greeks” (“Megali Ellines”). It asked from audiences to vote for the number one most important Greek in a two week span (let us say here that we will not go into any detail on just how slippery and misguided these terms are). The final result featured former prime ministers, military figures, painters, actors, the disingenuous dictators Ioannis Metaksas and Georgios Papadopoulos, the King and, at number one, Alexander the Great. The show’s unprecedented viewer numbers and the popularity of the Macedonian conqueror were just some indications of the nationalistic conditioning of Greek viewers and, arguably, the Greek nation.
From the very start, Smaragdis has been conjuring films about “great Greeks”, El Greco being a case in point. The film deals with the painter’s trial by the Spanish Inquisition and, before that, his mentorship and years in rural Crete where the exotic is combined with images of “authentic” Greekness and the Cretan spirit. The film tracks Theotokopoulos’s victorious exit from the court and, through a narrative loaded with national essentialisms and badly designed generic features (dramatic love affairs, fierce male encounters, scenes of artistic genius and divine inspiration), showcases the power of light over darkness – an allusion to the painter’s signature application of light and shadow. This crude schema is characteristic of binary thought that often determines citizenship policy and international politics in Greece: “Us” versus “them”, Greeks versus foreigners, Greeks versus the world which wants to deprivilege Greeks to whom the world owes the existence of “light”, typically thought of as the heritage of antiquity. This is just one popular way of thinking among resentful Greeks and in the circles of the ultra-Right. According to art historian Nikos Hatzinikolaou[i], who is one of the world’s leading authorities on Greco, Smaragdis twisted many facts from the artist’s life and took advantage of history and Greco’s art in order to impress Greek audiences with an exaggerated evocation of Greekness that borders on nationalism.
A point worth mentioning for comic relief is the casting of popular TV actress Dimitra Matsouka as Theotokopoulos’s lover who, despite the film’s immense budget, did not manage to cast off her disturbingly pronounced Greek accent which is more than discernible in the film’s trailer. Not to mention that she is a terrible actress. Contrary to Spielberg’s grand productions which have the hallmarks of a truly well made technically jaw-dropping film with brilliant performances, Smaragdis’s films appear as poorly conceptualized stories, with exaggerated performances and unconvincing character arks.
Recently, Smaragdis released his latest biopic Kazantzakis which deals with Greece’s renowned and lauded Cretan writer Nikos Kazantzakis. Regarding this film as well, Smaragdis has said that “thanks to the film, Greeks will learn just how special Kazantzakis was”. His comment reveals everything that is wrong about the director’s agenda and his films. Of course, no one is really in a position to say what an appropriate, politically correct or pious agenda should be. This is a sensitive matter that ultimately comes down to elusive questions on the nature and purpose of art and, here, cinema. However, films and filmmakers make themselves available to criticism regardless of intentions. So, Smaragdis appears as an enlightened crusader of Greek culture who is in that privileged position to disseminate his gospel through a popular medium – cinema. His words moreover reveal an insular conceptualization of national culture, that in other words his films are for Greeks first and then others who may possibly see what makes Greek culture and Greece per se… great. Smaragdis promotes a very singular facet of a writer and human being which leaves me questioning his idea of biography, of identity, human beings and life itself. Is it all so linear and straightforward?
Smaragdis’s good affairs with Nea Dimokratia and particularly former prime minister and party leader Antonis Samaras who provided great leeway to Golden Dawn and their supporters, is also suspicious. What are the director’s motivations, artistic and political aspirations? Is he a filmmaker or more of a propagandist for the conservative party which now boasts its centre-right (neo)liberal status? Those two are not mutually exclusive of course. I wouldn’t be surprised if photographs and videos of the film’s premiere featured members of the party and others regurgitating Smaragdis’s stale rhetoric.
The insularity of Smaragdis’s take on national cinema is rather surprising since many of his films are international, and at points transnational, co productions with an international cast from Europe’s jet set, topping with the appearance of Catherine Deneuve in God Loves Caviar, as Empress Catherine. El Greco as well featured an international cast and was filmed mostly in English. Yet internationalism can be a vehicle for lucrative business but also kitsch nationalism.
[i] Hatzinikolaou, Nikos, O Gkreko sti Megali Othoni ("Greco on the Big Screen"), Athens: Agra, 2008.