One of the greatest Greek filmmakers

One of the greatest Greek filmmakers

Cypriot Michael Cacoyannis was one of the greatest Greek filmmakers with international appeal. He is known for his films “Stella” (1955), “Electra” (1962), “Zorbas” (1964). He also distinguished himself as a theatre and opera director. He left as a legacy to future generations the Michael Cacoyannis Cultural Centre in Athens.

He was born on June 11, 1921, in British-occupied Limassol, and was the son of the lawyer Panagiotis Cacoyannis, who had been honoured with the title of “Sir” by the King of Great Britain. In 1938 he went to London to study law, at his father’s suggestion. He got his degree, but the dramatic arts won him over.

In the early years of World War II, the young Cacoyannis worked as the head of the BBC’s Cyprus Service, inspiring the enslaved Greeks with his broadcasts, while teaching theatre directing at Old Vic. In 1946 he met Nikos Kazantzakis, who was a guest of the British Council in London, and together they made a series of programmes for the BBC.

In 1947 he began to work professionally as an actor and starred in “Caligula” by Albert Kami, directed by Alexis Solomou, who at the time was also living in London. Cacoyannis was chosen by Kami himself for the eponymous role.

In 1953 he settled in Greece and began writing the script for his first film, Sunday Awakening (1954), a comedy with strong elements of Italian neorealism, which was a source of inspiration for this director. The film, which starred Dimitris Horn and Elli Lambeti, was entered in the competition section of the Cannes Film Festival, paving the way for its director’s international career.

This was followed in 1955 by “Stella”, one of Michalis Cacoyannis’ best films, with Melina Mercouri in the role of a prostitute who wants to live free. It is a hymn to the independence of women, bordering on tragedy, especially in the last scenes of the film.

The neorealist element, combined with elements of ancient tragedy and melodrama, is evident in his next two films, starring Ellie Lambeti. In The Girl in Black (1956), the great Greek actress plays an oppressed woman in the Greek countryside, while in The Last Lie (1958), a young girl who is pressured to marry a rich bourgeois to save her family from bankruptcy.

In 1959 he would shoot the film “Eroika” (1959), based on the novel of the same name by Cosmas Politis, the script of which he had written during his years in London at the instigation of Nano Valaoritis. The following year he would direct an international production at Cinecita Studios in Rome entitled The Lost Body, again starring Ellie Lambeti, from a script by himself and the American writer Fred Wakeman, Lambeti’s husband.

In 1961 he brought Euripides’ tragedy “Electra” to the big screen, with a great performance by Irini Papa in the title role. The film participated in the competition section of the Cannes Film Festival and won the Grand Jury Prize and a technical prize in 1962.

In 1964, the big moment of his film career would come with the film “Alexis Zorbas”, based on the novel by Nikos Kazantzakis “The Life and State of Alexis Zorbas”. The film, starring Anthony Quinn and Alan Bates, would be a worldwide success, winning three Academy Awards (1965) and creating the legend of Zorbas – with the contribution of music by Mikis Theodorakis – that reaches down to the present day.

After “Zorba”, most doors were open for Michael Cacoyannis, who began to work on both sides of the Atlantic, in America and Europe, staging classical repertoire, opera, but often tragedies, especially in New York. It is noteworthy that he first presented the Trojan Women at the Festival of Two Worlds in Spoleto, Italy, only to repeat them in New York and in Paris, before transferring them to film with Catherine Hepburn as Hecuba in 1969. In between, in 1966, he had made the film “The Day the Fish Came ashore”, a film about the threat of a nuclear catastrophe, based on an incident that occurred during the Cold War.

Throughout the dictatorship, Cacoyannis lived abroad and was one of the first to make statements against the junta on French radio stations on 21 April 1967, but also one of those who worked specifically with Melina Mercouri in the anti-hunt struggle. In 1973 he made the religious history and religion television film “The Story of Jacob and Joseph”, which was to be broadcast the following year on the American network ABC. It was his only work for television.

One of the highlights of his career was the political documentary “Attila ’74” (1975), which documents the situation in Cyprus after the coup against Makarios and the Turkish invasion, through interviews with politicians, such as Makarios and Samson, as well as ordinary people. As he recounted, he had just directed ‘Oedipus Tyrannus’ for the National Theatre of Ireland when he learned of the Turkish invasion of Cyprus.

In 1977, he brought Euripides’ tragedy “Iphigenia En Avlidis” to the big screen, with the newcomer Tatiana Papamoschou in the lead role, who won the performance award at the Thessaloniki Film Festival. Michael Cacoyannis’ filmography includes three more films: “Sweet Homeland” (1986) on the torture of the military regimes of Latin America, the comedy “Up, Down and Sideways” (1993) and the big screen adaptation of Chekhov’s play “The Cherry Orchard”, which is his swan song in the world of cinema.

About his personal life he had said: “I lived a good life, regardless of the fact that I never had a family. I loved creatures who loved me more falsely, I often broke the love conventions that current morality imposed. I loved much more, however, my work.”

Michalis Kakogiannis died on July 25, 2011, at the “Evangelismos” hospital in Athens, at the age of 90.