Director: Jules Dassin
Screenplay: Jules Dassin
Five years after his career defining Du rififi chez les hommes, writer/director/actor Jules Dassin returned with Pote tin Kyriaki, a film which earned Melina Mercouri a best actress award at the Cannes Film Festival and composer Manos Hatzidakis an Oscar for best original song.
Pote tin Kyriaki centers around Iliya, the most popular and sought after prostitute in all of the fishing village of Piraeus, Greece. Iliya is something of a hedonist with three main rules that she lives by: 1. She makes no prices 2. She’ll only have sex with clients whom she likes and 3. Each Sunday she has all her special friends over for a party.
Mercouri handles Iliya with just the right amounts of grace and toughness that the character demands, rounding Iliya into more than just a fun loving prostitute. But it’s Iliya’s morally corrupt lifestyle that attracts the attention of American philosopher Homer Thrace (Jules Dassin), who’s in Greece searching for something more than what he’s read in books on the fall of ancient Greece. He wants to know exactly what lead such a highly refined society to collapse. Deciding that Iliya embodies the transition of ancient Greece from beauty to moral corruption and decline, he makes it his goal to “purify” Iliya through books, music and art.
While Pote tin Kyriaki‘s greatest delights come from watching Mercouri’s confidence as she holds an almost emasculating sway over the men that follow her around, the biggest disappointment of the film is its inability to properly organize the themes and conflicts that it focuses on. Dassin’s Homer comes off as a pretentious, irritating and condescending American college boy – intentional no doubt, but the character’s failure to come to any sort of real understanding about life feels like a betrayal of everything that the film was building toward. The same can be said for Iliya, whose decisions and transformations are fickle at best.
Certainly there’s nothing wrong with a film having simple conclusions and messages, however, when a film is mired in existential and philosophical questions, only to offer up a weak resolve delivered through a single line of dialogue, well…I can’t help but feel more than a little cheated. After all, the relationship between Homer and Iliya is strong and there certainly is an onscreen chemistry between the pair (Mercouri and Dassin went on to marry in 1966), but the film would have been better off taking on only what it could handle in terms of the internal struggles of its characters, rather than scratching the surface of numerous interesting questions only to later abandon them.
Love and morality are powerful themes to explore in any film and for that very reason, they deserve more than a semi-superficial dabbling. A far better example of these themes in action would undoubtedly be Federico Fellini’s excellent Le notti di Cabiria. However, for all its shortcomings, Pote tin Kyriaki does cast a spell on its viewer, providing a sweet and humorous look at the enjoyment of life through the eyes of an entertaining character as immortalized by an even more entertaining actress.