Friday, March 27, 2015

The Trojan Women (1971)

          A grim drama from antiquity that director Michael Cacoyannis adapted for the screen with limited visual imagination and oppressive seriousness, The Trojan Women is notable for its impressive international cast: Katherine Hepburn costars with Geneviève Bujold, Irene Papas, and Vanessa Redgrave. Time has proven the staying power of the Euripedes play upon which the film is based (Cacoyannis employed a 20th-century translation of the original 415 B.C. text) so appraising the dramatic merits of The Trojan Women is unnecessary. That said, Cacoyannis did precious little in terms of reimagining The Trojan Women as proper cinema. Although the director shot most of the picture outdoors, presumably to erase the most obvious traces of theatricality, staging the majority of the scenes amid barren fields and craggy rock formations has the effect of accentuating artificiality. (Cities are only visible, fleetingly, as wreckage.) Even more problematically, the stilted language and the tendency of actors to scream their dialogue makes The Trojan Women feel histrionic.
          To be fair, the story concerns suffering of epic proportions, namely the emotional and physical horrors visited upon the female population of Troy during the Trojan Wars. Therefore, it’s not as if total restraint would have been a prudent storytelling strategy. Nonetheless, watching Bujold rave as the mad Cassandra, or watching Redgrave wail as the bereaved Andromache, inevitably creates a wall between the audience and the story—germane to the material or not, emotional monotony inhibits real engagement. And while Hepburn provides slightly more variance in her performance as the Trojan queen, Hecuba, she begins the picture by clutching at dirt upon realizing the depth of her defeat and then closes the picture by walking, zombie-like, toward a future as a slave, so each moment of her performance represents a steady progression into nonstop misery. Similarly, a key moment of Papas appearance involves the actress cowering, nude, behind a flimsy slatted wall while crazed women attempt to stone her to death. Among the film’s few prominent male actors, Brian Blessed screams longer and louder than anyone else in the cast, while Patrick Magee echoes Hepburn by incarnating assorted varieties of anguish. A favorable appraisal would characterize all of this stuff as relentless, though it’s just as accurate to say that The Trojan Women is simply unpleasant to watch.
          Cacoyannis, the Cyprus-born filmmaker whose career peaked with the Oscar-winning Zorba the Greek (1964), has said that he felt compelled to make The Trojan Women because of the play’s antiwar sentiments. However, it’s hard to imagine anything less suited to the popular culture of 1971 than a straight adaptation of a play from before Christianity. In any event, The Trojan Women received a fairly insignificant release, garnering just a couple of minor awards for Hepburn and Papas, and the picture has not risen to any special stature in the intervening years.

The Trojan Women: FUNKY

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