Tale of two brothers recalls the bitterness of Greece's civil war


LETTER FROM GREECE:A veteran film-maker is attempting ‘to reconcile the bloodiest pages’ of modern Greek history, writes RICHARD PINE

AT THE opening of The Mundy Scheme, Brian Friel’s now neglected 1969 play, the audience is asked: “What happens to an emerging country when it has emerged?” Too often, the sad answer is civil war, as, for example, Ireland and Finland found in the years immediately following independence.

The fact that Greece waited over a century, after its foundation in 1830-31, to have its civil war was due to complex political and social factors. It might have happened at the end of the 1930s, if it were not for the second World War, and Greece’s almost seamless slide from world war into internecine strife was due in no small part to its long history of searching for identity and governance.

Back in the 1970s I was involved in making a study of rural memories on behalf of the Council of Europe; I wanted to talk to young people in the Letterfrack area of Co Galway about the transmission of culture, but I was warned: “Don’t ask about the past – there is still too much bitterness in the village about the civil war.” And when I first came to Corfu, I was told “Civil war? What civil war?”

Yet, in the village where I live today, the events of 60 years ago are still fresh. One man is totally ostracised because he gave the authorities the names of three young communists who were then “disappeared”. Every year, the Greek communist party (KKE) organises a pilgrimage of remembrance to the Lazareto islet in Corfu bay, where most of the executions of prisoners took place.

It would be hard to imagine Ken Loach having been able even as late as the 1980s to make his film The Wind that Shakes the Barley(2006), but such a feat is what veteran Greek film-maker Pantelis Voulgaris has done with Psyhi Vathia(Deep Soul), 60 years after the civil conflict ended here – a conflict that saw the enforced emigration of hundreds of thousands of children to communist satellite countries, and claimed 70,000 lives.

The legacy of the civil war is such that the KKE (in fact the oldest political party in Greece) has 21 of the 300 seats in parliament (one of them from Corfu) and two MEPs. The deep divisions within Greek society were illustrated by the riots last December and by ongoing terrorism, which only recently saw six policemen seriously wounded by a group calling itself Conspiracy of the Cells of Fire – a great title for a gothic horror movie perhaps, but here it’s real life. It’s a society uneasy because its memories do not match its trajectory.

Voulgaris has adopted the same strategy as Loach in The Wind that Shakes the Barley, pitting two adolescent brothers against one another on opposite sides, which in a nutshell were the “national” forces of the de facto government and the “democratic”, largely communist survivors of the anti-German guerilla resistance. The brothers represent “both sides of the face of the same drama”.

Greece was, and largely continues to be, divided along ideological lines, focusing on questions of identity that can be traced back to the foundation of the state: republican versus monarchist, modernist versus traditionalist, and, above all, expansionist or conservative.

The debacle of the attempted occupation of Asia Minor in 1920-22 precipitated decades of political chaos, including two periods of military dictatorship, before the world war temporarily turned attention away from the main issues: where the Greek “soul” was to be found, how it was to be negotiated, how it was to be nurtured.

This search for authentic identity is powerfully encapsulated in the title of Voulgaris’s film: Deep Soul.

Sixty-nine-year-old Voulgaris has made 19 movies, many of them with overt political dimensions displaying his “leftist” persuasions, so critical apprehension on the appearance of Deep Soulhas been concerned with whether the director has given the film any bias in favour of the communists.

His avowed intention has been “to finally reconcile the bloodiest pages of our modern history”. To do so, he shows each side as represented by one of the brothers, and places them in one of the bloodiest locations of the war, in the Grammos mountains in western Macedonia – as Voulgaris puts it: “the last act of our nation’s drama”. Even the landscape – beautifully filmed – becomes a character in the drama of division and remembrance.

There have been other films in which this civil war features to some extent – Theo Angelopoulos’s Travelling Players(1975), Nicholas Gage’s Eleni(1985) and Giorgos Stampoulopoulos’s Pandora(2006) – but none in which the war itself is the central character. This is a huge act of faith by the director in the role of trauma as a healing agent.

Deep Soulis in many ways a memory film: the recurring motif is “let us not forget”, and in making the film Voulgaris enlisted the memories of local villagers who found artefacts and clothing in their own storehouses to supply an authentic context for that time.

He has set out to “uncover buried stories which, though unrecorded, become the narrative”. In a country still dealing with its history and unsure of its way forward, it is also an exercise in the storehouse of the mind: focus on this film is intent on discovering whether “let us not forget” can also encompass “let us understand”.