Thursday, March 6, 2014

Film Atlas (Greece): A Matter of Dignity

Country: Greece
Title: A Matter of Dignity / To Teleftaio Psema (1957)
The Pella family is wrapping up one of their regular late-evening parties. Mrs. Pella is playing a porch-side game of cards with her neighbors, all firmly upper-middle class. She asks Chloe, her only child, if there is any whisky left as the maid has ‘forgotten’ to buy more. Chloe fills up an empty bottle with tap water and then ‘trips’ and shatters it. She lingers at the card game, helping her mother win a hand using a few long-established signals. Meanwhile, Mr. Pella sits in darkness at his office staring sadly at nothing. It isn’t hard to figure out the truth: the Pellas are on the verge of bankruptcy. The shopkeepers no longer extend them credit. But Mrs. Pella insists, as a matter of dignity, that they maintain the illusion of their waning class status. 

Chloe, a classy, sharp-witted belle with no shortage of suitors, doesn’t have to be told that she may be her family’s only hope of salvation. Though worn out by deceit, Chloe is driven by filial duty and habituated privilege to begin calculatingly courting Dritsas, a rich American émigré from her social set, much to the chagrin of lovelorn Markos (“the eternal best friend”) and newcomer Gelanos, a heart-stealing widower. Her romantic schemes are interrupted by an accident involving Vasilakis, son of their long-suffering maid Katerina, who has loyally guarded the family secret disgrace and gone without pay for months. Now she needs money to foot the hospital bills and is deeply hurt to discover the extent of her employer’s selfishness.

A Matter of Dignity is a morality play structured around a tragic romance, not surprising given the country’s literary legacy. Director Michael Cacoyannis (best known for Zorba the Greek and Stella) would later go on to adapt three ancient Greek tragedies (Electra, The Trojan Women and Iphigenia), but this modern fable, an almost sympathetic take on the crumbling social mores of the 1950’s, is perhaps his most penetrating and affecting. 

The film is anchored by three strong female performance: (1) Chloe (Ellie Lambeti, Cacoyannis’s early-career muse), whose old-before-her-time cynicism and economic survival instincts conflict with her essentially generous nature, (2) her mother, whose warped commitment to appearances trumps her husband’s weak-spirited preference for honesty, and (3) Katerina, whose salt-of-the-earth working-class dignity contrasts sharply with the Pellas’s skin-deep sham. Cacoyannis makes frequent use of in media res, not just by jumping right to the tail-end of the opening banquet, but by skipping ahead at other times too. An obvious example is a scene that starts with the camera close on Chloe’s freshly ringed hand before pulling out to a medium shot while a man’s voice says, “You can open your eyes now.” Who needs anything else to understand the situation? This technique also initiates us into the film’s bold finale, where instead of wrapping up loose ends we are thrust into a crowd of strangers and left to flail for a while before recognizable faces emerge. Meanwhile our genre expectations are subverted by the film’s abrupt abandonment of its seemingly central romantic question (which of the three suitors will Chloe choose?) in favor of an ambiguous act of atonement that offers us something more substantial, if less savory, to chew on.

My Favorites:
The Counterfeit Coin (1955)
Ulysses' Gaze
The Photograph (1987)
The Travelling Players
A Matter of Dignity
Eternity and a Day
Euridice BA 2O37
Landscape in the Mist
The Drunkard

Major Directors:
Theo Angelopoulos, Yorgos Javellas, Mihalis Kakogiannis, Giorgos Lanthimos, Nikos Nikolaidis

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