A lyrical evocation of the life of the noted Greek poet, C.P. Cavafy (1863-1933), Iannis Smaragdis’ “Cavafy” is an exquisitely shot film that lacks conventional plot or narrative drama. Nonetheless, with fewer and fewer Greek films being made and shown, this soft, often poetic meditation should be exhibited in international film festivals as well as in the more specialized venues for gay fare.
Story begins in l933, with the great poet Cavafy (Vassilis Diamandopoulos) ill in an Alexandria hospital. He’s visited by a young writer who’s conducting a study of his life and work and needs his approval before sending the manuscript for publication. As the young man begins to read out loud what he’s written, Cavafy becomes lost in his memories, which seem to draw on the most influential events in his life.
Composed of stunningly handsome painterly tableaux, pic tells of Cavafy’s childhood in Alexandria, specifically his complex relationship with his mother (Mayia Lyberopoulou). They live a rich, rewarding life, until the Arab uprising, which forces them to flee to Constantinople. There, the young poet (played by Dimitris Katalifos) becomes aware for the first time of his family’s long history and cultural tradition. It’s also in Constantinople that Cavafy experiences his initial homosexual urges and is initiated into the city’s seedy nightlife. The sequences in Constantinople are shot with the kind of lighting that underlines the city’s pervasive erotic ambience, with older men following young boys in dark streets, and so on.
Upon returning to Alexandria, Cavafy is forced to get a job with the British Irrigation Service when his family loses its fortune. His most exciting hours, however, are at night, when he’s wandering outdoors by himself, and at his desk, when he records his intensely personal poems.
Two dramatic events puncture the slowly paced, evenly presented story: the death of Cavafy’s mother, which is crushingly depressing but also sets him free, and the rejection of Mavroudis, a young poet with whom Cavafy falls in love and who eventually drives him to anguished desperation. Tale ends on a strikingly realized homoerotic fantasy, in which the dying Cavafy is visited by all the energetic men he had celebrated in his poetry. Cavafy’s work is referred to throughout novelist Lawrence Durell’s “Alexandria Quartet,” and his homoerotic imagery reportedly influenced David Hockney’s paintings.
Nikos Smaragdis’ gorgeous lensing and Damianos Zarifis’ sumptuous set design compensate considerably for a rather static film. “Cavafy” is dedicated to the great Greek musician Vangelis (“Chariots of Fire,” “Missing”), whose moody score contributes immensely to the film’s ambience.