Dir. Yannis Smaragdis. Greece / Spain / Hungary, 2007. 107mins
Having picked up the Greek cinema State Award on top of the Audience Award at Thessaloniki, this is undisputedly this year's favourite Greek film, racking over 600,000 admissions and still going strong. An historical pageant adapted from a fictional biography by Dimitris Siathopoulos, it purports to offer the life and times of one Domenicos Theotocopoulos, better known as El Greco, possibly the greatest Spanish painter of the 16th century (who, as his name indicates, was born in Greece, or more exactly in the island of Crete).
Rich in colour but thin in real substance, featuring a handsome but stodgy Nick Ashdon in the main role, the script is not entirely divorced from historical fact, but doesn't trouble itself too much with them either. Speaking Greek, Spanish and uneven English, evidently for export purposes, it is less concerned with painting and more with the rebellion, be it against oppression in Crete or Inquisition in Spain. Reducing the painter's actual life in scope and in significance, it may draw an undemanding audience further afield. But it is unlikely to get much support from either festivals or critics.
In the film Domenicos Theotocopoulos (Ashdon) is the son of a rebel Cretan chieftain leading the fight against the Venetian invaders of the time. Realising his son's gifts, his father insists that he should paint instead of taking up arms, and with the help of the Italian governor's desirable daughter he is taken to Venice where he becomes an apprentice to the painter Tiziano. There, he refines his talent, gets a new name and is given one piece of advice ('never tell the whole truth, for no one wants to hear it'). Sadly enough, he does not follow.
A Spanish prelate De Guevara (Botto) invites him to Madrid and some arguments about art and money, he moves to Toledo with the daughter of a rich nobleman named Jeronima - whom he lives with, out of wedlock, for the rest of his life. They even have a son together. All is happiness until the Spanish Inquisition comes calling; he has offended De Guevara with the 'truthful' portrait he painted.
Told in flashback as El Greco bides his time in a dungeon awaiting his trial for offending religious orthodoxy, Smaragdis does not seem much interested in giving a balanced and factual account of the painter's life. El Greco is certainly shown to be a roistering lover and a fierce freedom fighter who never gave up his Greek identity. He's a firebrand artist dedicated to his art, unwilling to compromise and ever convinced of its supreme worth. He is a knight of the spirit of illumination, fighting darkness in every sense of the word. In essence Ashdon's stilted performance does not so much address art so much as nationalism and melodrama; but then, the rest of cast hardly fare better.
As Francesca, Dimitra Matsouka's English is heavily Greek-inflected when it would have sounded Italianate. Laia Marull's Jeronima looks miscast. Sotiris Matsoukas' Tiziano is almost a caricature. The only actor who attempts to go beyond the limitations of the script is Botto, who manages to convey a troubled conscience. A hint of some kind of clandestine homosexual attraction between Guevara and El Greco provides a twist that may tempt art historians to look at the famous portrait of the Cardinal in a different light.
Smaragdis may not draw much out of his cast or the portentous in which he distributes them on the frame, but has an eye for decorative images, which he has already displayed in the past (Cavafy). Though Vangelis' pompous but lacklustre score sounds retrieved from a bottom drawer, the picture certainly looks handsome enough, thanks to its solid cinematography, good sets and the deployment of fine costume.
00 30 210 6899 558
Based on the fictionalised 'biography' of El Greco - The Painter of God by Dimitris Siatopoulos
Juan Diego Botto