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The Weekend Neos Kosmos : 24 January 2015
DIGITAL.NEOSKOSMOS.COM THE WEEKEND NEOS KOSMOS | SATURDAY 24 JANUARY 2015 13 FEATURE From the film Maria tis Siopis (Mary of the Silence). From the film Snowhite Syndrome. spirituality, it confined itself within the security of the banal and the kitsch, the amorphous and the unilluminated. Whenever Orthodox Christian tradition was employed as anthropological perspective, as in the case of Apostolos Doxiades' film Terirem (1987), it rendered reality one-dimensional, unable to explore the transparency of the visual revelation and the shadows of the historical experience. Doxiades, and to a certain degree Stavros Tsiolis (and we don't have to mention Yannis Smaragdis), are two other interesting cases. Yet all their efforts to depict an Orthodox Christian temporality were mostly transformed into artificial folklore and pseudo-demotic iconographies without any religious connotations. In a strange way, the perverse, antinomic and chaotic universe of Nikos Nikolaidis' Singapore Sling (1990) and The Zero Years (2005) reveal more religious fear and trembling in front of the human body, framing new spaces to relocate the numinous. Through his terrifying anthropocentrism, Nikolaidis constructs a religious iconography within the unpredictable universe of desire, which explores the extreme boundaries of human self-destructiveness in terms of a deus absconditus, which could be the father, the hidden god of western metaphysics or indeed the mystified Freudian phallus. Like every atheist, Nikolaidis was in search of origins, not of ends, of beginnings and not of telos, in what seems like a pointless quest that led to the extreme de-formation of the human in his final films. However, hell is an equally spiritual place and Nikolaidis in his final films romanticised the death of all meaningful projects by glorifying the anti-humanism of contemporary capitalism. Consequently, unlike the anxious ‘spiritual’ struggle we find in the High Catholicism of Robert Bresson, the restless Protestantism of Carl Dreyer, the destructive wretchedness of Paul Schrader, the disturbed incarnational aesthetics of Martin Scorsese or the oneiric landscapes of Andrei Tarkovsky, no religious ‘visual cinematics’ were ever constructed in Greek cinema, not simply because of the absence of any inner struggle but mostly because of the absence of an anthropology about human fallibility and mortality. Most Orthodox directors have grown up with the doxological understanding of the divine, as an excess and overflow of energy, fecundity and meaning. Consequently they were unable to see human ambiguity and indeterminacy as existential conditions and psychological realities. The struggle of many directors was not simply to find or project religious meaning onto the visual culture of technological modernity but also to find the means to express a religious, and more specifically Christian, understanding of the human phenomenon from within the iconographic patterns of the Greek culture. As in its other theological manifestations, Orthodoxy never touched upon the fallen nature of the human, the suffering human being. It always interpreted historical experience from the point of the resurrected Jesus, as a post-historical eventuality and not as an active and perishable reality. The interpretation of the historical experience also was framed by the language of the Eucharist and the timeless character of the divine, not by the felicitous inaccuracies of the quotidian language of historicity. It remained, therefore, incapable of dealing with the multi-perspectival world of modernity, and the decentred subjectivities of postmodernity. Finally, the ambivalence and ambiguity of the human phenomenon never found a space of problematisation for the Orthodox Church and its theologians, who ended denying and rejecting all forms of aesthetic innovation and experiment. The language of Christian ‘humility’ and ‘poverty’ never became a visual idiom in the Orthodox cultural imaginary. In Greek cinema, the cinematic adaptation of Alexandros Papadiamantis' novel The Murderess by Costas Ferris in 1974 is the only attempt to capture the demonic in history. This unique film, now half-forgotten, remains one of the most powerful religious investigations through images into the determinism of mental iniquity and the vacuum of narcissistic despair, and needs to be revisited. Scholars feel embarrassed to talk about this deeply Christian film, only because of the kitsch and the vulgarity that dominates the Orthodox Church - otherwise it would have been a constant point of reference in discussions about the visual translatability of religious narratives. On the other hand, for a strange reason, the most interesting religious film, before Angelopoulos' Landscape in the Mist, was Michael Cacoyannis' Electra (1962), a film through which the tragic element of classical religion received its most powerful reinterpretation through the Freudian mythology and the existentialist anxiety that dominated post-war Europe. But still as in the case of Angelopoulos, in Electra there was religion but no faith; individual anxiety, therefore romanticism, but no self-conscious mortality. Cacoyannis romanticised the classical story, infusing it with the entanglements of his personal life and the questions of his generation. His framing of religious cinema, a cinema without faith and without transcendence, is what we find as his continuous legacy to Greek cinematography ever after. Filming tragedy, without addressing the tragic as a dimension of being, is like talking about humans without ever mentioning their mortality. His Iphigenia (1977) simply confirmed that an archetypal sacrifice could be transformed into a private tale, about families and their unhappy bedroom adventures. Bresson advised cinematographers g ng to present "one single mystery of persons and objects" since, as he stated - in probably the most pregnant statement ever made by a film maker - "the true is inimitable and the false untransformable" (1997:83). Greek cinema fought with the evil demon of images and was defeated. Maybe the most religious element in the visual culture of the country is to depict that defeat as the central condition of self-definition in the visual and rhetorical discourses of the culture. On the other hand, it seems that only atheists and nihilists were imaginative enough to produce religious cinema. Maybe because official religion, by being so obsessively preoccupied with power and wealth, proved to be the greatest opponent of all cultural activity in Greece, intensifying the spiritual and existential vacuum caused by the lack of politics. Yet, the question of religious cinematics must be revisited. Takis Kanellopoulos' films are full of religious reverence and piety towards the visible creation. His Sky (1962), for example, and Excursion (1966) are the most pious explorations of the realm of material presences from the point of their vulnerability and fragility. The same can be said about the pagan sensuality of Stavros Tornes' Karkalou (1984) or Gregory Markopoulos' homoerotic religiosity as the ritual/visual devouring of the male body (if Markopoulos' cinema was to be included in Greek cinema). In a sense, religious iconography has always existed in the architectural space of many Greek films, consciously or imperceptibly. Religiosity even less so, despite some striking examples of pure religious sensibility and anthropology. Yet, for critical interpretation, the important question still remains how to imagine a language that could articulate the presence of the spiritual or even account for its absence. In an era of deconstructionist nihilism, cinematographers have to do through disenchantment and cynicism in order to imagine that visual language and construct its conceptual forms. According to Wassily Kandinsky, the t From the film Mandalena, starring Aliki Vougiouklaki and Dimitris Papamichail. From the film Christ Recrucified, based on Nikos Kazantzakis’ book. spiritual emerges as "constructional spiritual emerges as "c harmonisation of different values" (1994: 193) while maintaining the identity of each individual object as distinct elemental force: the spiritual exists as the "image and likeness" of the real in composition and construction through the visual energy produced by their co-existing differences. Cinematic language follows similar patterns of synthesis, or indeed of anasynthesis, in its search for the numinous. David Bordwell pointed out that Angelopoulos framed "the simultaneous presence of many elements in the visual field soliciting the viewer to search out revealing aspects" (2005: 160). The simultaneous existence of incongruities within their structural harmonisation is what makes the best film by Angelopoulos, Landscape in the Mist, the only religious article of faith produced by visual means in Greek cinema, probably in Greek culture. It is his unique fairytale that transforms history into a landscape of transcendence, ontologically and experientially. So probably by discussing the horizontal dimension in art we can better understand the nature of vertical dimension in history. * Professor Vrasidas Karalis is head of the Department of Modern Greek and Byzantine Studies at the University of Sydney.
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