Essays (book reviews)

Realism in Greek Cinema: From the Post-War Period to the Present
by Vrasidas Karalis
(London: I.B. Tauris, 2017, hardcover; Bloomsbury, 2021, paperback)


Vrasidas Karalis’ boldly argued Realism in Greek Cinema – part of the Tauris World Cinema series edited by Lúcia Nagib and Julian Ross, now available as a cheaper paperback from Bloomsbury – is a loose sequel of sorts to his previous A History of Greek Cinema (Continuum, 2012).


This time, Australian-based Karalis concentrates in more detail on particular, key directors. One of the most gratifying aspects of this volume is its ecumenical good will in respectfully surveying many different kinds of cinematic production. Well-known auteurs of the art cinema tradition are given their due, but so is the popular, commercial output of Yannis Dalianidis, the “idiosyncratic and versatile” filmography of Nikos Koundouros, and the frankly experimental and feminist work of Antonietta Angelidi, destined more for art venues than traditional, theatrical cinema releases.


But what of the book’s central theme? It is easy to feel a little lost, as a reader, at the outset of this project. The name and topic of realism means very many things to very many people – and its connotations have changed wildly from one period to the next, and one country to another. Vladimir Nabokov said as much in lectures on literary form that he wrote at the outset of the 1940s: “Realism, naturalism, are only comparative notions. What a given generation feels as naturalism in a writer seems to an older generation to be exaggeration of drab detail, and to a younger generation not enough drab detail” (Lectures on Literature, pp. 146-147).


Karalis begins from this very well of incipient confusion: that realism does not name one thing – neither a specific aesthetic style nor a determined socio-political viewpoint – and that it can be called upon and reworked for broadly different purposes and aims. In the multiplicity of theorists and analysts that the author evokes in his opening methodological introduction – everybody from Béla Balázs and Fredric Jameson to Shohini Chaudhuri and David Bordwell – we might sometimes imagine that realism is here being made synonymous with filmmaking or film form itself, as this statement seems to imply: “I use the term ‘realism’ to indicate specific sets of visual devices framing formal arrangements in open space, linked through specific narrative codes” (p. 6). But that would be to throw too wide a net, and Karalis’ specific discussions of works and artists quickly rein the context in more tightly and illuminatingly.


So just what is realism, then? It would an error to begin reading this book with a head full of references to documentary filmmaking, or even the classic period of Italian neo-realist cinema (Vittorio De Sica, Roberto Rossellini, Luchino Visconti and so on). Almost everything we associate with those movements bears little relation to Karalis’ focus; he brackets aside the “innocent verisimilitude and photographic reproduction of the visible that dominated cinematic representation before 1950” (p. 30). Therefore, this is not a book about observational photography, debates concerning voice-over narration, use of non-professionals as actors, or the polemical preference for real, natural locations over studio-bound work. It is not about naturalism, “verism”, or mimesis.


Realism must here be understood in a radically other way: as an attempt, in an artistic medium, to bear witness to the times, to grasp not simply the superficial look of the contemporary world or society, but more so its feeling, its ethos, its zeitgeist. The world as it is lived, and conceived. For Karalis, realism in the context of Greek cinema involves “landscapes of cultural memory, patterns of social tension, strategies of ideological coercion and visualisations of individual experience” (p. 15).


That is precisely why there is not one realism but many realisms: for some practitioners, chaotic and flamboyant melodrama captures the tenor of our times; for others, cool and distanced minimalism can give a measure of the character of the world. Karalis gives equal weight, and equal respect, to all these diverse responses such as they have formed themselves within Greek cinema.


There is, in truth, an almost bewildering variety in the number and type of realisms that Karalis indexes here. I noted down this far from exhaustive list of adjectives denominating diverse forms of realism: neoclassical (Michael Cacoyannis), symbolic (Koundouros), affective (Gregoris Gregoriou), poetic and symbolic (Maria Plyta); sculptural, spectral, episodic, and psychological; not forgetting hybrids such as hyper-realism, symbolic meta-realism, and “soft realism”. Some films exhibit a “new realism of closed spaces”; while Angelidi is credited with having “solved the problem of realism”. Whew!


But sense, of a sort, can be made of this variety. In a crucial way, the realism associated with the post-war period that Karalis selects is already a kind of post-realism: it is modernist, self-conscious, questioning of its own forms and limits. It is often jarring or fragmented (montage is a crucial and radical technique here), almost deliberately falling short of its own grandiloquent goal of capturing reality in one fell swoop. It traffics in contradictions, with stark changes in tone and genre. It is, in short, the type of quasi-Cubist, achingly “impossible” realism we identify, in the same period, with the work of Alain Resnais or Jean-Luc Godard in France, of Miklós Jancsó in Hungary, of Michelangelo Antonioni and Marco Bellocchio in Italy, among so many other prime modernists of the medium.


In Karalis’ account, this special history of realism in Greek cinema is initiated by Cacoyannis in the 1950s and continued by Theo Angelopoulos, among other recognised auteurs.


Yet this sinuous, sometime elusive, modern realism is also an aspect of the popular, commercial Greek cinema to which Karalis extends his purview. This is one of the greatest strengths of Realism in Greek Cinema, and it affords the reader many genuinely revelatory insights. In Karalis’ account, even the most apparently flippant comedy or palliative moral tale can show us a reality – in its backgrounds, in the surroundings, in everything that is unsaid but ever-present – that is, ultimately, expressive, spellbinding and even overwhelming for its spectators. “If there was something fixed in front of the camera”, Karalis writes eloquently, “it was the confusing, disorienting and unpredictable conflict between state and society. The disconnection between individuals and the structures around them was the most persistent invariable” (p. 29).


Using an interpretive model of psychoanalytic inspiration, Karalis seeks out the unspoken implications and structuring fantasies – especially in relation to queer sexuality – that lurk in sombre art films and apparently light-hearted entertainments alike. As he rightly states, for too long the Greek “cultural imaginary was perpetually frozen around questions of belonging, identity and nationality” (p. 28) – to the exclusion of considerations of gender, class, sexuality and poetic form. Realism in Greek Cinema helps greatly in levering open these areas anew.


A few minor quibbles. I daresay that the manuscript could have done with a tighter edit under the aegis of its initial publisher, I.B. Tauris (I have not consulted the subsequent Bloomsbury edition, which may have undergone some editorial work). There is some repetition in the prose, and occasional clumsiness in the expression. For instance, Karalis refers, in the European style, to film directors as cinematographers – and yet he also refers, in the Anglophone style, to Directors of Photography as cinematographers, thus creating some incidental confusion. One can smile at the almost obsessive observation that just about every film and filmmaker mentioned “needs further research”!


And I did feel uneasy with the insistent narrowing of cinema’s full aesthetic possibilities to what Karalis calls “visual forms” and a “poetics of seeing”. Although there are the obligatory references to the music of Mikis Theodorakis (died 2 September 2021) for Cacoyannis, and Eleni Karaindrou’s scores for Angelopoulos, as well as occasional mention of the sound ambience of this or that film, the audio aspect of this audiovisual medium is too often neglected – and Karalis is hardly alone in this typical omission. Film critics and theorists of every persuasion need to open their ears more!


In its concluding sections, Realism in Greek Cinema brings us up-to-date with a brief account of the so-called Greek Weird Wave populated by Yorgos Lanthimos, Athina Rachel Tsangari and others – noting its rapid expansion into the internationalist space of funding and film festival culture. But one feels that this trend has not yet settled enough into a shape that Karalis feels entirely confident to pronounce upon diagnostically. We happily await a future book on this topic by him for further, in-depth elucidation.


© Adrian Martin December 2018 (updated September 2021)

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
home    reviews    essays    search