Cavafy (1996): Lyrical Evocation of Noted Greek Poet (LGBTQ, Gay)

Toronto Film Fest 1996–A lyrical evocation of the life of the noted Greek poet, C.F. Cavafy (1863-1933), Iannis Smaragdis’s 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 in the more specialized venues for gay fare.

The story begins in 1933, with the great poet C.P. 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, we learn 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 its seedy nightlife. The sequences in Constantinople are shot with the kind of lighting that underlines the city’s all-pervasive erotic ambience, with older men following young boys in dark and long streets, and so on.

Upon return to Alexandria, Cavafy is forced to get a job with the British Irrigation Service as his family loses its entire fortune. His most exciting hours, however, take place 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 his mother, which is crushingly depressing but also sets his free, and the rejection of Mavroudis, a young poet with whom Cavafy falls in love and eventually drives him to anguished desperation.

The 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 homoerotic imagery reportedly influenced Lawrence Durell’s novels, The Alexandria Quartet (one section of which was filmed in l969 by George Cukor under the title Justine) as well as David Hockney’s paintings.

Nikos Smaragdis’ gorgeous lensing and Damianos Zarifis’ sumptuous set design compensate considerably for a rather static film, which goes back and forth in its time structure.

Cavafy is dedicated to the great Greek musician Vangelis (Chariots of Fire, Missing), whose moody score contributes immensely to the film’s ambience.