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The inquisition of

In the four weeks following its hugely

successful premiere at the Pallas

Theatre in Athens, the stunning new

epic El Greco attracted 590,000

Greek cinema-goers. The Greek-

Spanish-Hungarian co-production

is a free adaptation of Greco: The

Painter of God, Dimitris Siatopoulos’s

biographical novel of the life of

Doménicos Theotokópoulos.

Cretan-born Theotokópoulos was

better known to the world as the

influential 16th century artist and

resolute freedom-fighter, El Greco.

As El Greco awaits his trial in prison

after running foul of the Spanish

Inquisition, his powerful story of

heroism, betrayal, power and love

is related in flashback in English,

Greek and Spanish dialogue. The

biggest Greek production in recent

years, it shifts to Crete in 1566 as

Theotokópoulos (played by Nick

Ashdon) succumbs to the attractions

of Francesca (Dimitra Matsouka),

the beautiful daughter of the Greek

island’s Venetian governor. After his

rebel father’s failed uprising against

the Venetian invaders, the artist flees

to Venice in search of freedom, where

he is dubbed as El Greco. There he

becomes an apprentice to Titian,

renowned artist of the Venetian

school and a master painter of the

Italian Renaissance. Fernando Niño de

Guevaro, an intense young Spanish

priest, encourages him to move to

Toledo where he meets Jerónima de

las Cuevas, the daughter of a rich

nobleman, who bears him a son. But

he is increasingly at odds with the

Spanish Inquisition and the young

priest, who becomes not only a

cardinal but also the Grand Inquisitor

and his greatest adversary.

Director of photography Aris

Stavrou (The Cherry Orchard,

Beautiful People) used an ARRI 535

camera throughout the two-month

shoot. He endeavoured to light the

actors’ faces in the same way as the

faces appear lit in El Greco’s haunting

paintings, with their dramatic

interpretation of darkness and light.

“Above all, I very much wanted to

avoid any sense of studio lighting,”

he says. “I used direct but diffused

lighting sources, as if I was treating

light like a broad brush loaded with

colour. I was also very careful to avoid

casting any direct shadows at all.

This approach gave the Steadicam

operator Michalis Tsimberopoulos

and the actors the opportunity to

move freely without being concerned

about the lighting. In fact, about

three-quarters of the film was shot

on Steadicam. Of course, the main

objective throughout was to remain

as faithful as possible to the feel of El

Greco’s paintings.”

Measuring light

Stavrou set up all the scenes by

eye, in order to achieve the right

effect. “I didn’t go around measuring

light here and there, since many

scenes had a latitude of as much as

four f-stops,” he remarks. The DP

used KODAK VISION2 500T 5218

and KODAK VISION2 250D stocks.

“They allowed me to take extreme

risks in the course of filming without

having to worry about any unpleasant

surprises. They were the safety belt

that gave me complete freedom and

helped to ensure everything remained

under control throughout the shoot.”

What was the most demanding

and difficult scene to light and shoot

in El Greco? “It was undoubtedly the

scene of the Inquisition, particularly

the opening wide-angle shot of the

inquisitors who were sitting around

the table at the far end of the hall,”

responds Stavrou. “The ceiling was

50 feet high and the long hall was

otherwise largely empty, so there

was no easy way of hiding the lights.

It was also a strictly-controlled

historical location, which meant

that almost any kind of intervention

was out of the question. In the end,

we illuminated the inquisitors with

a single, small 200w HMI hidden

behind a beam high above the table;

otherwise, the scene was only lit by

gas flames at floor level.”

Stavrou did not use any filters on

the camera, but in some scenes he

filtered the light sources themselves

through coloured cotton cloth. He

shot the majority of the exteriors in

the harsh sunlight of Crete, while

the higher level of humidity in the

principality of Catalonia in Spain

created a more forgiving backdrop to

the interiors.

Cretan-born director Iannis

Smaragdis (Kavafis, To tragoudi tis

epistrofis (Homecoming Song)) was

born in Heraklion, a little more than

300 yards from El Greco’s house.

“The whole Greek civilisation is


El Greco

based on light,” he exclaims. “The

work of our poets – from Homer to

George Seferis and Odysseus Elytis,

who were both winners of the Nobel

Prize in poetry, are a study of light.

Just like all the Greek statues and the

Parthenon, they were made to absorb

– and at the same time send – light to

people.”

‘Soul’ of the movie

“With epics, the main problem

is creating the atmosphere of the

relevant period in time but with

El Greco, Aris Stavrou had full

knowledge and understanding of

the required lighting techniques.

We also conducted camera tests

in cooperation with the laboratory

so that our choice of filtration and

stocks, and our post-production

requirements could be established.

But I believe that none of these

elements would have worked well

if the ‘soul’ of the movie had been

missing. Whether it is found or not

is unknown to filmmakers before

shooting a movie; only the god of

cinema knows! But I don’t think that

there is a director in the whole world

(respecting him or herself) who does

not recognise that Kodak film stocks

are the best means to see their

dreams recorded on film.”

“The first thing I learnt from

El Greco was what it feels like to

cooperate with cinema markets

from other countries around the

world,” Smaragdis continues. “This

experience has been valuable and I

believe that the future of humanity

lies in the broader cooperation

between people. The United States

is now seven hours by plane from

Greece, Madrid is three hours and

London is four hours, whereas if

someone wants to travel to Crete, it

will take them many hours by boat.

My previous film, Kavafis, referred to

the famous Greek poet Konstantinos

Kavafis, whose poem Ithaca was

read at the funeral of Jackie Kennedy,

following her wishes. According to

this poem, the most important part

of life is the ‘nice trip’. This is exactly

what I have gained in the making of El

Greco. A nice trip.”

Such is the importance of this film

in Greece, that the premiere was

attended by Her Majesty Queen

Sophia of Spain; Karolos Papoulias,

President of the Hellenic Republic;

and many high-ranking ministers.

Amongst others in attendance were

Jack Lang, the Spanish producer;

Raimon Masllorens, the Hungarian

co-producer; Dénes Szekeres, director

of finance at the Motion Picture

Public Foundation of Hungary; and

Evangelos Odysseas Papathanassiou,

better known as Vangelis, the

composer of the film’s stirring

music. El Greco has since been

awarded eight prizes at the 2007

Thessaloniki Film Festival, including

Best Direction, Best Photography,

Best Art Direction and Best Music. It

was also voted Best Film by festival

audiences and awarded Best Film by

the Greek Union of Film & Television

Technicians.

An Audio Visual Entertainment

release, El Greco was co-produced

by Alexandros Film, La Productora,

Tivoli, Greek Film Centre, ERT,

Nova, Le Spot and Max Productions.

Its Cretan business supporters

include Maris Hotels, Minoan Lines,

TEDK Association of Heraklion,

Spar-Veropoulos, Hellas Net, Tourist

Services, Grecotel, George Siganos,

Cretan Plastic, Peripheral Fund of

Crete, Chamber of Industry, Hert,

Apollonia Hotel, Hotel Fovele and

Diophar. The film also received

support from the European Union’s

MEDIA II programme.

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