May 6, 2021 • Carolina Azevedo
Ancient cultures, with emphasis on ancient Greek and Roman societies, have had a huge impact on the way western society perceives the world. From democracy to theater, traces of Greek culture are seen all around us, and in cinema it is no different. Since its inception, their mythology and literature have been a medium through which artists investigate the world and denounce problems within individuals and governments. This seems quite familiar to us nowadays, as many films place social awakenings at the centre of their narrative, investigate psychological dynamics, and critique the societies we inhabit .
Philosophers and playwrights of ancient Greece already perceived drama as a method of conscientization and an exercise of democracy. By adopting Greek culture and transforming its history into a metaphor for the concerns surrounding politics, ethics, and morality, these tragedies have the power to reflect on incumbent problems in society. As a response, many filmmakers and authors have chosen to revive Ancient tragedies and myths in order to reflect on our own society. In the image of what Greek playwrights such as Euripides and Sophocles did back in the 5th century BC, many movies have used these stories to consider issues such as gender oppression, homophobia, and more.
Portrait of a Lady of Fire (2019) dir. Céline Sciamma — Orpheus and Eurydice
French director Céline Sciamma manages to reinterpret the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice in the remarkable tragedy of female existence, Portrait of a Lady on Fire. By portraying the unfulfilled love between Marianne and Héloïse in 18th century Brittany, the film makes a timely statement on the violence perpetrated against women from Ancient Greece to this day. As Héloïse tells the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice in one of the most beautiful, intimate and foreshadowing scenes in the movie, the women question the lack of freedom Eurydice had in her own life, mirroring the reality they live themselves at that very moment. Forcefully kept at home and married to a man she did not know, Héloïse gives a voice to Eurydice, whose fate and life were dictated by her lover’s stupidity. Sciamma’s new look at Virgil’s myth is just as heartbreaking as the original story. In this tale of queer love and female suffering, Marianne becomes Orpheus, and her travels to the island mirror the hero’s journey to the underworld. Marianne’s world is ruled by patriarchy, and beyond that, is a place in which love and desire between women are outlawed. As foreshadowed by Héloïse, their love story was destined to fail, leaving the lovers permanently separated by their hellish reality.
Orpheus (1950) dir. Jean Cocteau — Orpheus and Eurydice
Cocteau’s retelling of Orpheus and Eurydice is a very different, yet equally emotive, version of the myth. Set in post-war France, it tells the story of distinguished poet Orphée who loses his Eurydice to an oneiric underworld ruled by a beguiling mysterious princess of death. Cocteau’s Orphée is often interpreted as a personification of the author’s own troubled artist persona, given that he lives a life intertwined with the real, the dreamlike, and the deathly. Mirroring not only the troubles of a poet but also those of its era, Orpheus takes place in a world haunted by the traumatic deaths and authoritarianism experienced in World War II and is set in a France destroyed by the horrors of war. These environments also represent not only the real, but the oneiric, the inside of our poet’s tortured mind, the “zones made of memories and the ruins of human habit” to which he journeys to save his wife. As he descends into the underworld and begins living his life moving back and forth between reality and dream, Orphée is seduced by Death — personified in the princess. — and is granted the immortality a poet dreams of, an immortality he finds is bound by the prison of living eternally between life and death.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017) dir. Yorgos Lanthimos — Iphigenia in Aulis
Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos’ tale of American morality The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a take on the Euripidean tragedy Iphigenia in Aulis that excels at showcasing where the “progress” of western society has led us. The film takes its name from the tragedy’s main plot, in which Agamemnon, king of Mycenae, is punished by the goddess Artemis for accidentally killing a sacred deer. As a result of his action, Agamemnon and his troops are prevented from sailing to Troy at the start of the Trojan war. The king lies to his peers, omitting how his accidental killing has led to their current position, which results in the goddess demanding the sacrifice of his daughter, Iphigenia. In the film, the story is almost exactly the same, only our main character, Steven, is here represented as an even more atrocious personality. After killing a patient whilst performing surgery drunk, the patient’s son curses the doctor and his family, leading one of Steven’s children to the same fate as Iphigenia. Steven’s narcissism plays a big role in the portrayal of American moral corruption, as, unlike Agamemnon, the character very clearly places his status before other people’s well being, and would rather kill one of his own than admit he committed an atrocious mistake. Just as Euripedes, Lanthimos’ goal within this tragedy was to warn the audience about the individualism that stains modern democracy and the brutal consequences that it has upon people.
Funeral Parade of Roses (1969) dir. Toshio Matsumoto — Oedipus Rex
In this avant-garde combination of documentary footage and surrealist storytelling, Matsumoto manages to revolutionize cinematic language in a film that would become a landmark of Japanese New Wave cinema. Funeral Parade of Roses appropriates the storyline of Oedipus Rex for modern cinema, aiming at the mesmerizing chaos of postmodernism. The film captures the helter-skelter of the 1960’s counterculture in the context of Tokyo’s underground LGBT culture, telling the tale of transvestite actress Eddie, our incendiary Oedipus. Matsumoto says in interviews that by merging surrealism with documentary he would be able to tell not only how one perceives events in reality but also within their own psyche. In the ominous world of Funeral Parade of Roses, Eddie’s lover finds out she is actually his long-lost son and the dualism within the film is disturbed along with the characters themselves. As the ending arrives, the main character’s realities fall apart in front of our eyes and our own world begins to crumble: fact and fiction, mental and physical, tragedy and comedy, cinema and reality merge, allowing space for a new perception of man, one whose “spirit reaches its own absolute through the incessant negation.”