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El Greco: Homage to Crete and a critique of the Church

Premiered in Spain more than a year after its premiere in Greece, the film that portrays the life of the Cretan painter, Doménikos Theotókopoulos, known as “El Greco”, didn’t enjoy very much success in the Iberian Peninsula. El Greco is a homage to the island of Crete where the director, Giannis Smaragdis, passed his youth some 300m away from the painter’s house, surrounded by Cretans, a people intransigent and free, great lovers of the pleasures of life just like El Greco. In fact, after seven years of preparations, the film was wrapped up in 2006 and premiered in Greek cinemas on 18th October 2007 with a special screening organized in Athens on 15th October 2007 which was attended, apart from the cast and the director, by Queen Sofia of Spain, the French former minister Jack Lang and the musician Vangelis. With a budget of 8 246 050 dollars, El Greco is the most expansive Greek film of all times.

It was shot in Heraklion, Crete, the island of Rhodes and Athens as well as different places in Spain. The famous Greek composer, Vangelis, provided a new and original score for the film. It is the second time that Smaragdis and Vangelis work together on a film, after their successful collaboration on Kavafis in 1996. It is no coincidence either that, according to Smaragdis, it was Vangelis’ idea as well as that of a Cretan businessman who provided the initial funds in order to begin production. The subject wasn’t new for the composer either as in 1995 he has dedicated an entire album to El Greco’s paintings (“ΦΟΡΟΣ ΤΙΜΙΣ ΣΤΟΝ ΓΚΡΕΚΟ”) so as to raise funds for the acquisition of “Saint Peter” by the Alexandros Soutzos Museum in Athens.

The film is the epic tale of Doménikos Theotókopoulos, and intransigent artist and a freedom fighter. Set in the 16th Century, the story follows El Greco’s search for freedom and love in the courts of Crete, Venice and Toledo where he finds himself confronted with his arch nemesis, the Inquisition. He never surrenders in his fight against the institutions of the period. This story of El Greco is one of unusual heroism, treason, love and the power of a man and his creative conscience to stand up and overcome barbarity and ignorance.

With El Greco, Smaragdis returns as he did with Kavafis, to the biopic genre. The director declares that this is an epic story of a Greek artist who refused to compromise, a freedom fighter: “it is a luminous journey that tries to transcend the obscurity of its times and reach the world of the divine”. He decided to make this film precisely because “this strange and creative individual that is El Greco, in whom lives the biggest soul of the Cretan land” has gained international recognition by “preserving the characteristics of his camp during difficult times and he didn’t even give up before his greatest enemy, the Inquisition”. According to Smaragdis, El Greco is:

The hero who sucks the substance of life, strange and fascinating, who fought against the darkness and ignorance of his time and won. A positive figure that can become a model for the people of today and tomorrow, and give faith to each and every one of us in order to find our way towards freedom.

The film is a mise-en scène of a biographical novel, thus, from a strictly speaking historical point of view, it is somewhat questionable. As a matter of fact, it gives the impression of being closer to reality than it actually is. There is no profound and real discussion about his art apart from, perhaps, the constant “fight” between light and darkness and the recurrent reference to his ability to transform his models into saints. The film evolves through a more than evident symbolism: the apples with a golden angel that El Greco throws to Jerónima de Las Cuevas remind us again and again of this fight between knowledge and good signifying the light and freedom personified in turn by the Church and the Holy Office. It is said that El Greco has always been a good Christian, faithful to the Catholic Church and an artist at the service of the Counter-Reformation. Actually, his patrons were in their majority cultured ecclesiastics and connected with the official centre of the Spanish Catholicism which was the archdioceses of Toledo. His artistic career coincided with the culminating moment of the reaffirmation against Protestantism and the paintings commissioned by his patrons had the purpose of spreading the Counter-Reformation doctrine, redefined and reinforced by the Council of Trent in 1563.

However, in the film, this true side of the artist does not appear. El Greco appears close to the Church through the Great Inquisitor, Niño de Guevara, who is his great admirer and nemesis. The relationship of proximity and friendship that El Greco has with Niño de Guevara is more than exaggerated and symbolizes therefore the relationship with the Church and consequently with the Inquisition. Through this relationship, the film criticizes the censorship of the latter, blinded by darkness, the defence of the faith and the Catholic faith that drives the church to commit all sorts of barbarities against the people who are persecuted and considered to be heretics. In the above-mentioned relationship between the painter and the Great Inquisitor, we can see as well the admiration of the latter for the Greek artist, which converts the initial admiration into an obsession for the person of the painter, for power, religion and grandeur. In reality, the adhesion of El Greco to the thesis of the Counter-Reformation is highlighted in his thematic repertoire as a great part of his work is dedicated to the representation of saints whose role of intercessors between men and Christ was defended by the Church. Among his works, the value of confession and penitence doubtlessly stand out, with multiple representations of penitent saints or Mary Magdalene (in the film El Greco gives her the face of his lover, Fancesca da Rimi, the daughter of the Venetian Governor in Crete) and the Virgin Mary whose fervour is one of the characteristics of the Spanish Catholicism.

What the film does portray very faithfully is the fact that the bishops are responsible for watching over the adhesion to the orthodoxy and, in fact, the successive archbishops of Toledo imposed reforms through the Council of the archdioceses, an organism with which El Greco was closely related and which approved all the artistic projects that should represent faithfully the catholic theology. In the film, we can say that the director almost makes fun of these rules on the fulfilment of the orthodoxy in the Counter-Reformation art, enumerating a whole series of almost ridiculous non-fulfilments by the artist, going from the size of the angels’ wings to the usage of colours that are too violent for the Church such as, for instance, red, that appears many times symbolizing the blood shed by the Church and at the same time stains El Greco’s hands as a sign that his life hangs on a thread due to his trial by the Holy Office. The Counter-Reformation fervour can be perceived in this film in the fact that the painter is being reproached the fact that his son doesn’t know how to cross himself according to the established norms by the doctrine, which can only indicate that El Greco is still orthodox and not catholic, which makes him a heretic and moves the film even further away from its historical veracity.

On the other hand, many elements of El Greco’s life were left aside. For instance, we can enumerate the omission of his stay in Rome before moving to Toledo; his studio in the film appears completely empty, with him as the only painter when in reality his studio was the flourishing heart of artistic production as a large number of paintings were produced by assistants that followed his sketches under his direction. Moreover, it is not mentioned either that, when he died, he left the trade to his son, Jorge Manuel. Nevertheless, the film captures in a fairly correct manner the period but even so, the historical scenery leaves much to be desired as the range of locations is not very wide; the historically relevant places are rare and consequently, Toledo only appears in one of his paintings, which enhances even more the director’s homage to his native land. Crete and Venice are more important in this game of historical spaces and the accent is put more precisely on the Venetian domination of the island, personified by the figure of the Governor of Venice in Crete, da Rimi, whose daughter the artist falls in love with. The authenticity of this Venetian family also remains dubious.

We shouldn’t forget either that the film is an adaptation of a biographical novel, thus the historical reality of El Greco’s life remains somewhat deformed. We cannot say that the appraisal of the film is unfavourable as it gives one the impression of being closer to reality than it really is; consequently it succeeds in making us believe the story it tells although it is historically dubious. It is a failed blockbuster, nonetheless with its great score it achieves to transport us to those remote times, penetrate deep inside the character to his more human and not only artistic side; it is a faithful portrait of the Inquisition that goes hand in hand with an acid critique of the Church; but it is above all and without a doubt the director’s homage to Crete, this isle that saw them, painter and director, both be born.

O.T.: El Greco. Productiom: Alexandros Film/La Productora/Nova/Tívoli Filmproductions (co-production) (Greece-Spain 2007). Producers: Elena Smaragdi, Raimon Masllorens, Dénes Szekeres and Georgios Fragkos. Director: Giannis Smaragdis, based on the biographical novel, El Greco: o Zoógrafos tou Theou (El Greco: el Pintor de Dios) de Dimitris Siatopoulos. Photography: Aris Stavrou. Music: Vaggelis Papathanasiou. Artistic direction: Damianos Zafiris in collaboration with Oriol Puig. Choreography: Konstantinos Rigos. Costume design: Lala Huete. Editing: Giannis Tsitsopoulos.

Cast: Nick Ashdon (Doménikos Theotokópoulos, “El Greco”), Juan Diego Botto (Niño de Guevara), Laia Morull (Jerónima de Las Cuevas), Lakis Lazopoulos (Nicolos), Dimitra Matsouka (Francesca Da Rimi), Sotiris Moustakas (Tiziano), Dimitris Kallivokas (Pedro Chacón), Theo Alexander (Manoussos).

Color – 119 min. Premiere in Spain: 21-XI-2008

Note: this review was published in Spanish in Film-Historia Online, Vol. XIX, num 2-3 (2009) and www.cinehistoria.com (April 2012)

One comment on “El Greco: Homage to Crete and a critique of the Church

  1. Stamatis Spanoudakis.
    March 5, 2014

    fantastic points altogether, you just won a brand new reader.
    What would you recommend in regards to your publish that you just made some days ago?
    Any certain?

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This entry was posted on May 2, 2012 by in Film and History.

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