With Iphigenia, Mikhali Cacoyannis is perhaps the first film director to have successfully brought the feel of ancient Greek theatre to the screen. His own screenplay, an adaptation of Euripides' tragedy, was far from easy, compared to that of the other two films of the trilogy he directed. The story has been very carefully deconstructed from Euripides' version and placed in a logical, strictly chronological framework, better conforming to the modern methods of cinematic story-telling. Cacoyannis also added some characters to his film that do not appear in Euripides' tragedy: Odysseus, Calchas, and the army. This was done in order to make some of Euripides' points regarding war, the Church, and Government clearer. Finally, Cacoyannis' Iphigenia ending is somewhat ambiguous when compared to Euripides'.
The film was shot on location at Aulis. The director of photography, Giorgos Arvanitis, shows us a rugged but beautiful Greece, where since the Homeric days time seems to have stood still. He takes advantage of the bodies, the arid land, the ruins, the intense light and the darkness. The harshness of the landscape is particularly fitting to the souls of the characters. The camera uses the whole gamut of available shots, from the very long, reinforcing the vastness and desolation of the landscape, as well as the human scale involved, to the extreme close-ups, dissecting and probing deep into the soul of the tormented characters. In particular, the film's opening, with a bold, accelerating tracking shot along a line of beached boats, followed by an aerial view of the many thousands of soldiers lying listlessly on the beach, is a very effective means of communicating Agamemnon's awesome political and military responsibility.
No word but "sublime" can describe the stunning performances of Costa Kazakos (Agamemnon), Irene Papas (Clytemnestra), and Tatiana Papamoschou (Iphigenia). Kazakos and Papas embody the sublimity of the classical Greece tragedy. Kazakos' character is extremely down-to-earth, and his powerful look into the camera, more than his words, reveals the unbelievable torment tearing his soul. Irene Papas is the modern quintessence of classic Greek plays. In Iphigenia, she is terrible in her anguish, and even more so for what we know will be her vengeance. Tatiana Papamoskou, in her first role on the screen, is outstanding in her portray of the innocent Iphigenia, which contrasts with Kazakos' austere depiction of her father, Agamemnon.
Cacoyannis is faithful to Euripides in his representation of the other characters: Odysseus is a sly, scheming politician, Achilles, a vain, narcissistic warrior, Menalaus is self centered, obsessed with his honor, eager to be avenged, and to have his wife and property restored.
The costumes and sets are realistic: no Hollywood there. Agamemnon's quarters resembles a barn, he dresses, as do the others, in utilitarian, hand-woven, simple garb. Clytemnestra's royal caravan is made up of rough-hewn wooden carts.
The music is by the prolific contemporary music composer Mikis Theodorakis. Theodorakis' score intensifies the dramatic and cinematographic unfolding, reflects on the psychological aspect of the tragedy, and accentuates its dimensions and actuality.
This film and the story it narrates offer considerable insight into the lost world of ancient Greek thought that was the crucible for so much of our modern civilization. It teaches us much about ourselves as individuals and as social and political creatures. Euripides questions the value of war and patriotism when measured against the simple virtues of family and love, and reflects on woman's vulnerable position in a world of manly violence. In his adaptation of Euripides' tragedy, Cacoyannis revisits all of these themes in a modern, clear, and dramatic fashion.
The relationships governing the political machinations are clearly demonstrated: war corrupts and destroys the human soul to such an extent that neither the individual nor the group can function normally any longer. With the possible exception of Menelaus, whose honor has been tarnished by his own wife's elopement with her lover, everyone else has his own private motivation for going to war with Troy, which has nothing to do with Helen: the thirst for power (Agamemnon), greed (the army, Odysseus), or glory (Achilles). And so in a real sense, Helen became the WMD of the Trojan War. The war, stripped of all Homeric glamor and religious sanctioning, was just an imperialist venture, spurred primarily by the desire for material gain, all else being a convenient pretext.
Another conflict raised in the film is that between the Church and the State. Calchas, who represents the Church, feeling the challenge to his priestly authority and wishing to destroy Agamemnon for the insult to the Goddess he serves, tells him to sacrifice his daughter. In consenting to the sacrifice, the King comes closer to his moral undoing, but in refusing, loses his power over the masses (his army), who are brainwashed by religion. Of course, for Agamemnon, it's a game. The King must go along with the charade whether he honestly believes in the Gods or not, until he realizes, too late, that he has ensnared himself into committing a despicable filicide.
Is it a sacrifice or a murder, and how can we tell the difference between the two? By focusing on the violent and primitive horror of a human sacrifice--and, worst of all, the sacrifice of one's own child--Euripides/Cacoyannis creates a drama that is at once deeply political and agonizingly personal. It touches on a most complex and delicate ethical problem facing any society: the dire conflict between the needs of the individual versus those of the society. In the case of Iphigenia, however, as in the Biblical tale of Abraham and Isaac, the father is asked to kill his own child, by his own hand. What sort of God would insist on such payment? Can it be just or moral, even if divinely inspired? Finally, does the daughter's sacrificial death differ from the deaths of all the sons and daughters who are being sent to war? These are many deep questions raised by a two-hour film.