Festival Daily

By Alissa Simon

The spirit of peripatetic sixteenth-century Greek painter Domenikos Theotokopoulos, better known to the world as El Greco, comes to Toronto during the Festival via the colorful period drama El Greco, directed by Iannis Smaragdis, and a special exhibition, “El Greco – from the set to the screen,” which will be on display at the Bata Shoe Museum through September 14.

The medium for this materialization, director Smaragdis, his producer wife Eleni Smaragdis and cinematographer Aris Stavrou, will appear at the film’s public screenings on September 12 and 13. They will be accompanied by the leading actors, including Nick Ashdon, a Brit who smoulders as El Greco; Juan Diego Botto, sinister perfection as Spanish priest Nino de Guevara; and Lakis Lazopoulos, who plays Nicolos, El Greco’s faithful companion.

The real El Greco was born in 1541 in Crete, at that time part of the Republic of Venice. He left his island home at the age of 26, moving on to Venice and then Rome. In 1577 he travelled to Toledo, Spain, where he lived and worked until his death in 1614. He is now regarded as one of the major figures of Spanish Renaissance art.

El Greco the film, based on the fictional biography Greco: The Painter of God by Dimitris Siatopoulos, takes considerable artistic licence with his life. For instance, it creates a passionate romance between El Greco and the daughter of Crete’s Venetian governor, pitting the painter against the Spanish Inquisition. Nevertheless, it turned into one of Greek cinema’s biggest hits, selling upwards of 800,000 tickets.

Smaragdis, himself a Cretan, was born a mere 300 metres from El Greco’s birthplace, and credits the world-renowned Greek composer Vangelis for inspiring him to make the film. He recalls, “Everything began in the summer of 1996. Vangelis had just completed the score for [my film] Cavafy. We were seated in the kitchen of his house when he asked me if I had decided my next film. I answered that Cavafy was still very new and I hadn’t decided yet. ‘Why don’t you make a film about Domenikos Theotokopoulos?’ he asked.”

In the autumn of 2007, 10 years, 26 script rewrites, a budget of $10 million and a 1130-page storyboard later, El Greco made its world premiere at the Thessaloniki Film Festival. It swept the national competition categories, winning best film, direction, music, photography, art direction, editing, sound and makeup.

Normally, the top national competition winner goes on to represent Greece in the category of Best Foreign Film at the Academy Awards®. But since El Greco was shot with 80 per cent English dialogue, it is ineligible. Eleni Smaragdis notes, “We are making all the procedures for our film to be nominated for an Oscar award in several [other] categories. For example, for the marvelous score of Vangelis, for supporting actor for Juan Diego Botto, for the excellent costumes designed by Lala Huete, and for Aris Stavrou, one of the best cinematographers in Europe, for his magical photography in the film.”

As the main producer, Eleni Smaragdis commissioned extensive research to bring the film’s distant era to life. One hundred paintings, exact replicas of the originals, were created to represent El Greco’s body of work. Period pennants were printed, specialized iron constructions forged, and sixteenth-century swords and other weapons sought. The intricate costumes required hundreds of meters of velvet, silk taffeta, diaphanous muslins and brocades, as well as rough woolen and linen materials and leather.

After the principal photography wrapped, Eleni Smaragdis realized that the elaborate props and costumes would be of interest to the general public, and arranged exhibitions in Athens and Thessaloniki. She curated a smaller selection for an exhibit at the Bata Shoe Museum, sponsored by the Greek National Tourism Organization, which includes 30 of the replica paintings and seven characteristic costumes.

Admission to “El Greco – from the set to the screen” is free of charge for those with El Greco tickets or ticket stubs; otherwise museum admission rates apply. The Bata Shoe Museum, located at 327 Bloor Street West, is open Monday through Sunday from 10am until 5pm. On Thursdays there are extended hours until 8pm, and admission between 5pm and 8pm is free. For further information about the exhibit, telephone 416-979-7799.