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Roza of Smyrna revisited

Dean Kalimniou delves into Giorgos Kordelas' popular drama and addresses a few basic incongruities in the film

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Photo: SinemaTürk

03 November 2017

What passes for a hunk in 1987 Athens, a man haunted by his family's expulsion from Constantinople during the 1955 pogroms, is organising an exhibition of the everyday life of the Greek community of Smyrna before 1922. He does so, during the Sismik crisis, when tensions are heightened between Greece and Turkey, and war is threatened. Byzantine in appearance, and dwelling in the past, his girlfriend, on the other hand, is professional, unsentimental, calculating and completely indifferent to the fate of the Greeks of Asia Minor save as a topic of scientific study; she is a symbol of the 'new Greece'.

A chance encounter with a blood-stained wedding dress and a mysterious photograph in Izmir (for as his Turkish guide replies when he asks what remains of Old Smyrna: "Not much") sets our hunk upon a train of enquiry that will see him: a) destroy his relationship with his girlfriend and almost immediately forge another, after a chance encounter in an antique shop; and b) uncover the inconvenient truths of a family that has, up until now, preferred to keep them hidden. That inconvenient truth is one easy to foresee. The elusive Roza's secret is that she had fallen pregnant to a Turk, with tragic consequences.

The brilliance of the lavish film Roza of Smyrna is that even though the plot is basically comprised of a bunch of clichés strung together upon an extremely flimsy, implausible and yet predictable plot, both the scenario and characters are treated with so much affection that these implausibilities don't really matter to the viewer, neither will the film's many flaws, detract from what is a pleasurable viewing experience. From an artistic point of view however, this film, is a conglomerate of fascinating and inspired potentialities, whose flaws and possible lack of research prevent it from coalescing into the coherent and epic narrative it deserves to be.

A few basic incongruities are indicative of this regrettable lack of attention to detail and yet rather than infuriate, they entertain the viewer, which is why this film abounds in charm:
Firstly, and this is my favourite, all of the motor vehicles appearing in the film present themselves as being waxed to a brilliant shine, as if they had just been driven out of the car detailers, quite an interesting juxtaposition to dusty, perennially water-deprived 1987 Athens and for that matter, 1987 Izmir.

Secondly, if Ismail, the main protagonist's lover, spent the years between 1922 to 1987 desperately trying to find Roza, the mother of his child, and had no idea of her whereabouts (even though he is an extremely powerful man and could have plausibly obtained professional assistance in order to track her down), how is it that he could send her letters, which she was able to receive and keep unopened?

Thirdly, how is it that Roza, who has changed her name, can receive letters addressed to her old name, care of Athens Greece, with no suburb, or street name and number supplied. Is the inference that there existed at the time dedicated Greek postal detectives who, nimbly and silently, tracked down those to whom letters were improperly addressed? More importantly, what has happened to these selfless individuals?

Fourthly, while the filmmakers take great pains to explain to us the plausibility of Ismail signing his letters with the Greek initials Ι.Σ (which is silly because his name being Ismail Kulaksiz, his initials should be IK), by having Roza launch into a lengthy and rhythm-disrupting explanation that many Turks used Greek letters because the Ottomans of the time used the unwieldy and difficult to use Arabic script, they present Ismail's first letter to Roza as having been written in 1922. That letter, the text of which can clearly be seen, is written in the Modern Turkish alphabet, with Roman, not Arabic letters. And yet, the new alphabet did not come into effect in Turkey until 1929, some seven years after Ismail's letter. Either Ismail was an early linguistic prophet, or some serious lacunae in the research have developed.

Fifthly, according to the film, in order to efface her sexual transgression, Roza is married off to a willing Greek, in exchange for a financial benefit. The wedding, we are told, takes place after the Greek troops evacuated Smyrna. We know that this took place on 8 September 1922, that the Turkish army entered the city that evening, and that massacres began almost immediately. We also know that at this time, the Christian inhabitants of the city began to flee for their lives. Is the filmmaker's contention therefore plausible, that a wedding would have taken place during these circumstances, let alone one where the guests are dressed in their finest clothes, completely disregarding the fact that marauding Turkish soldiers and irregulars are contemporaneously roaming the streets trying to kill them?

Sixthly, Ismail relates how he entered the church while the wedding was in progress and during the confusion, Roza's father was shot dead, neatly explaining how blood stained her wedding dress, one of the film's supposed key 'mysteries'. He states that he entered the church with the purpose of disrupting the wedding as he did not want to lose his love, or his child. However, after Roza's father is massacred, he is shown placing her on a horse, giving her a tiny knife the size of a letter opener and letting her go. Considering that at this time, massacres were raging all around Smyrna, how can Ismail's professed love of Roza be reconciled with his willingness to allow her to venture, unprotected, into the midst of a raging genocidal mob, knowing that her rape or death was almost a certainty? And what purpose does the penknife have, except as to act as a silly and irrelevant symbol of who knows what, when at the end of the film and her life, Roza throws it into the Bosphorus, a stretch of water that has absolutely no significance for her?

One aspect of the film I found enthralling was this: Roza's granddaughter, who I suspect is a parody of Audrey Tautou, is a struggling artist with no recognition of her talent. When it is revealed to her that the only reason why her art is being recognised, purchased and exhibited in Istanbul is because her patron is actually her grandfather, Ismail, who has arranged for this to be so out of his own pocket, she barely bats an eyelid. If this was an Anglo-Saxon film, this revelation would have caused her immense self doubt and to question her talent and artistic value. In this film, directed towards a Greek audience, none of that betrayal or loss of validation is explored, presumably, because nepotism is so entrenched within the modern Greek psyche, that the thought doesn't even occur to her, or rather to the filmmakers who lack the insight to explore this aspect of the scenario they have created. Roza herself provides insight into entrenched nepotistic values. While she is fully cognisant of the hunk's designs on her granddaughter, she treats him with exaggerated consideration, when she forms the opinion that he is behind her granddaughter's turn in artistic fortunes. Thus, in the case of both Ismail, an abductor, murderer and person willing to allow the object of his love to venture into a massacre, and our hunk, money and favours can buy you love.

Just as intriguing is the film's attitude towards to Ömer, who our hunky protagonist meets in Izmir. In their lame and clumsy attempt to trace the conversion of a racist hunky Romaic intellectual consumed with hatred into a modern, humanistic hunky European intellectual, the filmmakers have the said hunk treat his Turkish companion appallingly. Stereotypes abound: The Greek is impulsive, effusive and passionate. The Easterner is accepting, passive, stoic and kind. As the relationship thaws to the point where hunk is comfortable enough to reveal that he speaks Turkish, we are led to expect that this is a seminal moment in their relationship. Paradoxically however, the effect of this revelation is completely rendered irrelevant by the pair continuing to converse in English. Furthermore, the portrayal of the reputedly more intimate friendship is puerile: at all stages hunk acts as a western colonialist, rather than a friend. Even as the relationship warms, instead of being treated as an equal, Ömer is portrayed by the filmmakers as an errand boy or a trusty sidekick. Tellingly, he is conspicuously absent from the exhibition at the end of the film, one which could not have been held without his intervention. His absence renders our hunk's public recantation of hatred and espousal of inter-ethnic love presciently hipsterish.

In like fashion, the denouement, where after needless prevarication, Roza scurries to Ismail's deathbed, witnesses him succumbing to a heart attack, throws his knife into the sea and then dies on the pier is mystifying. Grandmother and granddaughter are close. By this stage, Roza is at least 80 years old. It stretches credulity to believe that Roza would have been allowed out at night in a strange country without supervision, let alone be permitted to perish romantically upon a pier, just so the filmmakers can reference the romance of Layla and Majnun. (Note to the filmmakers: Majnun was killed by Layla's husband. There is little or nothing to parallel their story to this one, except for an inept attempt at a little Orientalist exoticism. Still, 10 marks for trying).
While the movie successfully builds up suspense and creates mystery around the circumstances of Roza's secrets, their revelation is emotionless and the retrospective scenes do not succeed in allowing us to feel her pain or sympathise to the extent that we should, partially because they are not plausible, but mostly because they are told by others and we do not get to understand them through her eyes.

As such, her character remains criminally underdeveloped. This is because the filmmakers, in spending time cramming as many disparate and interesting elements into the early part of the movie in order to build suspense, have forgotten the most important rule of narrative: Show, don't tell. This is a pity because the character of Roza gives rise to immense opportunities to fully showcase the ambiguities of moving within and transcending ethnic and religious boundaries. Perhaps the filmmakers could have taken a leaf out of Alexander Billinis' brilliant Hidden Mosaics: An Aegean Tale, where similar secrets are treated in a historically plausible and nuanced fashion.

The above notwithstanding, the endearing Roza of Smyrna has the makings of a thoroughly evocative and enjoyable movie, one that invites thought and consideration, a feat in itself. Its cinematography, more a paean to a lost, confident PASOKian past that to Smyrna, is lyrical and elegant.

It is worth a look, not just only, to trace what could have been, an epic masterpiece, had the filmmakers the patience and the skills, but to delve into what is, a fascinating amount of detail.

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