The New York City Greek Film Festival has come of age. Celebrating its eighth year, the festival’s first week unreeled with high caliber, original films from veterans and dazzling newcomers while turning the spotlight on legendary director Pantelis Voulgaris and his wife and collaborator Ioanna Karystiani. Festival Director James DeMetro said “2014 was a very good year for Greek movies. We had many strong films to choose from and were able to find a variety of genres and films that appeal to a wide variety of viewers. This year’s films are so polished. Audiences realize that there has been an enormous step forward as far as quality is concerned. I think they like what they see.”
Along with professionalism, the films overflowed with the Greekness we know and love: eccentrics and philosophers, devious mothers, superstitious fathers, comedy and tragedy. Monica and Richie Barsamian, who have attended every film festival and seen every film said, “It’s like an open window on Greek culture. We’re avid supporters and we’re always challenged by how the movies reflect current issues, how they’re part of Greek culture today.”
Voulgaris and Karystiani came from Athens for the festival and a once-in-a-lifetime doubleheader, the tenth anniversary screening of Brides and the New York premiere of Little England, Greece’s 2014 Oscar entry. The Museum of the Moving Image hosted the Brides event.
Brides looks even better ten years after its inception. A ship sails from Smyrna with 700 mail order brides aboard. A seamstress Niki falls in love with an American photographer, played by Damian Lewis, most recently seen starring in Showtime’s Homeland. It is an exquisitely beautiful film, and resonates with complex emotions, the sorrow of separation mingled with the hopes for a new life. It certainly deserves U.S. distribution. This has not been achieved, despite the efforts of the film’s executive producer, Hollywood powerhouse Martin Scorcese.
Scott Foundas, Variety’s top film critic, interviewed the filmmakers after the screening. Said Karystiani, Brides scriptwriter, “It’s very hard to get films from small countries like Greece distributed abroad. It’s like a game that you don’t know how to play. We would like to see the film distributed because there is pure soul in the film. Speaking as a writer, I like books or people or paintings not because they are perfect but because there is some pure authentic sentiment there. I think Brides is a movie like that.” With seven novels and short story collections to her credit, Karystiani ranks as one of Greece’s most popular writers. Now 62, she did not begin writing until age 42. “I enjoy collaborating with my husband. It’s difficult but it’s good. You have so much to discuss,” she said. “Brides was a challenging production that took seven years. It’s the first film with all Greek girls – 2,500 auditioned for the roles!”
At age 74, Voulgaris impresses with his candor, warmth, and humor. Although he studied at the Stavrakos Film School in Athens, he said he “learned by doing,” working as a child on film sets, “and through the people I encountered. But my most important education came from my parents, who were incredible story-tellers. I grew up surrounded by stories.”
If Brides takes the prize for beauty, Little England wins the laurel wreath as an emotional cinematic experience, the kind of film we so rarely see today. The film opens with huge waves washing up on the shores of the island of Andros, cuing the violent and passionate drama about two sisters in love with the same man. Penelope Tsilika plays Orsa, with Sophia Kakkali her younger sister Moscha. Perhaps not since actresses like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford burned up the screen has there been this depth of cinematic love and hate in a movie. Little England sets a new standard for eroticism on film. Rather than see a couple making love, a commonplace of multiplex films, we listen in on the lovers. Totally, this film is a five-star masterpiece.
Litte England was based on the novel The Jasmine Isle by Karystiani, who also wrote the script. Arriving at the Ziegfeld theater after a packed cocktail party at the Russian Tea Room and seeing the crowd waiting for tickets, Karystiani said, “Pandelis and I will give our seats away. We have already seen the film.” Fortunately, they stayed to hear the audience sing “Happy Birthday” to Voulgaris, and to enjoy the enormously enthusiastic response to the film. Voulgaris commented, “It is as if we were watching the movie for the very first time. I have never seen it so beautifully projected and with such a fine sound quality.”
Karystiani has written a new script titled One Thousand Breaths. “It is based on the current situation in Greece. Voulgaris is trying to raise money for it. It’s not an expensive production, like Brides or Little England, but the situation is really very difficult.”
A brief look at some other outstanding festival entries:
The Enemy Within – A powerful, important film from director Yorgos Tsemberopoulos inspired by life on Athens’ mean streets. After thugs invade the home of idealistic Kostas and rape his daughter, he sets out for revenge. The old “if you can’t lick them join them” applies here.
Common Denominator – Tyro film-maker Sotiris Tsafoulias broke all the rules of film-making to produce this gem. The only action in the film is a tavli game. Three guys meet in a kafeneion and rap about women, the conversation veering between the philosophical and the physical. Renos Haralambides plays one of the men. Of course a beautiful young woman comes into the story.
Xenia –A four-star winner from director Panos Koutros, who a few years ago gave us Strella. Following the death of their Albanian mother, two brothers, one gay and one straight, hit the road to seek out their Greek father. Koutros interviewed a thousand plus actors to find Kostas Nikouli who plays Danny, a heart-winner and heart-breaker.
The Winter – Any film that features actor Vangelis Mourikis has to be special, and this film is no exception. It is wonderful, a first film from Konstantinos Koutsoliotis, written with his wife Elizabeth E. Schuch. A failed writer leaves London to return to Siatista and finish his novel. Theo Albanis portrays Nikos, with Mourikis as his dead father. “I die in all my films,” says Mourikis. “I like it.”
September – The story of a waitress whose entire life consists of looking after her dog. When he dies, she intrudes on the lives of doctor and his sympathetic wife, who befriends her. Intriguing and Ingmar Bergmanesque. Committed – Put two beautiful people on the road in a white convertible and send them on a trip through scenic Cyprus. How can you lose? George, a sweet, dimpled hunk picks up a bride who claims to have had wedding jitters. A twist at the end elevates this charming romance.
Lost in the Bewilderness – Thirty years in the making, this documentary from Alexandra Anthony traces the life of Lucas, who was kidnapped by his mother at age five and taken to America. Eleven years later, he returns to Greece to meet his father. A fascinating doc with a happy ending, Lucas’s wedding at age 38.
The Hellenic American Chamber of Commerce, including executive director Stamatis Ghikas staged the Festival, with important support from the Onassis Foundation, the Agnes Varis Charitable Trust, Dr. Alexander Kofinas and Eleni Kofinas and the Stavros Niarchos Foundation.