Three of Michael Cacoyannis’ films are a trilogy of the ancient Greek tragedian Euripides’ plays. The first time I saw one of these movies, Iphigenia, I was stunned that I could have lived so long unaware of the most well wrought drama ever written. Euripides was the last of the three great ancient Greek tragedians whose work remains to us (Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides). He was deeply critical of social conventions and his investigation of human dilemmas are as profound as any philosophy. He is well known for the technique of building dramatic tension by letting the audience know what the character on stage does not, as well as showing the detailed day to day lives and psyches of heroic figures. This is executed to devastating effect in Iphigenia – it is harrowing to watch innocent, stoic Iphigenia greet her father. Tragedy is not just a bad ending, it’s a choice that must be made even either option leads to something bad.
Whether due to budget or artful intention, Cacoyannis skillfully uses minimal staging and landscape settings to strip back these plays, letting the raw power of the word in an actors mouth speak for itself across two thousand and three hundred years. With mouths like that of exquisite Irene Papas’, starring in all three films (as Iphigenia’s mother, Clytemnestra, as Helen and as Elektra), viewers learn the meaning of gravitas and pathos.
The chronological events in the plays is the opposite to the order in which Cacoyannis filmed them. You could watch them in either order, but I recommend the following, as I happened to find them, in the opposite order to their filming, and in the order of events in the play:
The Greek army, amassed and ready to sail for Troy, wait for the wind to change. During a hunt a deer sacred to Diana is accidentally killed. A terrible sacrifice must be made.
The Trojan Women
Troy has fallen. The women protest their fate.
King Agamemnon returns victorious from Troy and falls. His son and daughter must live in hiding from their mother.