OK time to get this out there. Intended to put more into this challenge but looks like I'm not, oh well. Concentrating almost entirely on earlier Greek cinema.
1. Alexis Zorbas / Zorba the Greek
(Michael Cacoyannis, 1964, GREECE
Started with this because it happened to be on TCM, and it sort of got me off on the wrong foot with Cacoyannis; I think I might have liked this a little more had I watched it after the others I've now seen, as this came off as really misogynist and ugly to me, when the three earlier films that I saw later appear if not overtly feminist then at least highly critical of the macho stupid behavior we see on display throughout this film. Then again I think this is sort of trying to have it both ways - clearly not on the side of what happens to the widow played by Irene Papas, but also very willing to forgive the many trespasses of the over-the-top title character, played with the usual gusto by who else but Anthony Quinn. I generally like Quinn a lot but I really couldn't take Zorba, and Alan Bates' character is too weak and too willing to be led on by this guy to be sympathetic either. Which leaves the several mistreated women, some of whom seem to deserve more even in the context of this fictional film, to my mind. Plus it's WAY too fucking long. Still it looks nice, the music's good, and Papas and the Oscar winning Lila Kedrova leave big impressions in small roles.
2. Dafnis Hai Hloi / Daphnis and Chloe
(Orestis Laskos, 1931, GREECE
I don't use "dated" as a perjorative very often but it probably applies here. This is a really dull silent retelling of a 2000-year-old Greek novel, with a storyline that's been used, adapted, critiqued, etc, over and over through the centuries - I felt I knew it certainly - about a Romeo/Juliet type thwarted love, where the boy can't marry the girl because she's poor, she can't marry him for the same reason, but they both find out that of course they have special parentage, the Gods smile on them, etc. Notable for being an early film with nude scenes but that's the extent of the interest - extremely stagy and wooden acting and storytelling throughout.
3. Prosopa lismonimena / Forgotten Faces
(Yorgos Tzavellas, 1946, GREECE
This started out well, with a sort of noirish feel at first as a no-account loser comes back to Athens after years in America and seeks out an old flame - but though there are some interesting crime (blackmail) elements throughout, overall the film is overwhelmed by melodrama which to my taste really hurts the central story of the middle-aged woman trying both to reunite with her daughter - who doesn't know her, being given up to her father when she was young while mother was cast out - and get away from the clutches of the "old flame" turned irredeemable monster. Not bad but feels a bit unsure of what it wants to be.
4. Magiki polis / Magic City
(Nikos Koundouros, 1954, GREECE
Another crime story, this one posits the "Magic City" as both a big amusement arcade, and of course the magical city of Athens - the downtown, shiny, expensive city which the characters on the margins can only dream about. Our main character Kosmas owns a truck, a rare thing, by which he makes his living as a hauler, and is torn between working with shady importers, likely smugglers, and trying to be honest but maybe lose the vehicle to the bank - and also torn between two women, the good girl and the whore basically. Familiar story but well told and with a pretty good chase sequence at the end.
(Michael Cacoyannis, 1955, GREECE
Also a good girl / bad girl story, or so it seems at first, with two singers - good girl Anetta and bad girl Stella (Melina Mercouri in a star-making role) vying for the attentions of nice guy Alekos - but Anetta can't catch his eye, and Stella can, but wants to remain her own woman. What I liked the most about this is how Stella goes from seeming to be a catty, slutty bitch at first to a real independent, proto-feminist heroine over the course of the film, which makes the last act when things turn sour with her new and more glamorous love quite powerful and poignant. This was where I first noticed Cacoyannis' repeated visual motif of a long shot with the two main character separated at ends of the frame, portending something final, or tragic, or violent - I think this recurs in all three of the 50s films I watched in a similar manner near the end.
6. Istoria mias kalpikis liras / The Counterfeit Coin
(Yorgos Tzavellas, 1955, GREECE
While the first segment in this roundelay film about a counterfeit gold sovereign (presented often in gold tint in an otherwise b/w film), in which we meet the maker of the coin and those who influenced him in it's creation, does go on a bit, overall I found this pretty delightful, if fairly typical in it's messages that money doesn't buy happiness, that people are more important than possessions, etc. The story about the beggar and the hooker is the most amusing, the one about the girl (Elli Lambeti, an incredible presence here and in the two Cacoyannis films she made over the next couple of years) from a rich family who marries the poor and uncompromising painter is the most emotionally resonant.
7. O drakos / The Ogre of Athens
(Nikos Koundouros, 1956, GREECE
The best film I've seen so far in this challenge, this is a mistaken identity story that again has some noir-like characteristics - in fact it's listed as noir in some sources - but is ultimately a tragedy of the powerless and lonely just wanting a little slice of the pie and being denied even that. The "ogre" or "dragon" is apparently a powerful criminal - we never see him, but we do see a meek little bank clerk who looks just like him, and who takes a short ride to hell because of this mistake. What I liked most about this was that it's quite easy to imagine that there is no real "dragon", that he's just a story made up by the cops, or by the criminals, for political ends; and I liked the element of fooling oneself, as our man gets a taste of being the big man, knows it's going to go wrong, but... a moth to the flame. This is hard to describe, it's a film of expressions and emotions on faces and shadows, but it's memorable enough to warrant a place in my mind and a return trip some day.
8. To koritsi me ta mavra / A Girl in Black
(Michael Cacoyannis, 1956, GREECE
is the title girl in black, pursued relentlessly by numerous macho assholes in her small town, while her brother rages against their mother, a widow who is unwilling to stay celibate and alone in their decaying old mansion. But an Athenian writer comes to stay a week, and everything changes for the whole village, and the macho assholes get a certain quite unforeseen comeuppance. The tragedy that forms the third part of this film seems a little contrived and movie-ish in a way, but it's well executed and doesn't diminish too much the power of the story overall, of women's powerlessness and good men's weakness.
9. To teleftaio psemma / A Matter of Dignity
(Michael Cacoyannis, 1958, GREECE
Lambeti is back, this time as a rich Athenian girl set to marry a much richer man, but falling in love with a middle class antiques dealer. Or so the one-line writeup would say - there's a lot more here as we soon find that Lamberti's family isn't as wealthy as they pretend to be, and -- a nice reversal of the bitch-turned-heroine in Stella
- Lamberti's Chloe turns out to be not so much better than the rich snobs that she pretends to despise at the beginning of the film. Like the previous director-actress pairing this has a tragic denouement that's a little over-the-top, but the emotional last scene works quite well regardless.