5 Films inspired by Ancient Greek plays

Davide Abbatescianni 8 June 2021

They might be many centuries of years old but Ancient Greek plays still inspire films that are being made today—here are 5 examples

I am one of the (un)lucky few who caught the opportunity to study, during his high school years, two classical languages, Latin and Ancient Greek. Despite the debatable usefulness of learning a dead language’s grammar, the five-year-long deep dive into these subjects allowed me to discover most of these ancient peoples’ immense culture, art, literature and history.

Greece in particular was the birthplace of theatre and, from 550 to 220 BC, local playwrights produced a number of tragedies, satyr plays and comedies. Perhaps not everyone knows that the influence of these centuries-old works is still alive, as Ancient Greek theatre plays still inspire the work of many prominent film directors. Here are five of the finest examples:

The Killing of a Sacred Deer

Presented at Cannes Film Festival in 2017, the first title of this list is based on Euripides’ tragedy Iphigenia at Aulis. In the original myth, Agamemnon, leader of the Greek army against Troy, accidentally kills a deer in one of Artemis’s sacred fields. He is told by a seer that he must kill his eldest daughter, Iphigenia, in exchange, and his commanders pressure him into sacrificing her.

There are different endings of the story: in some Iphigenia is killed; in others, she is transported elsewhere or replaced at the last moment with a deer or a goat by Artemis.

The film, directed by Euripides’ fellow countryman Yorgos Lanthimos, centres on Steven (Colin Farrell), a cardiothoracic surgeon married with Anna (Nicole Kidman) and father of two, teenage Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and younger Bob (Sunny Suljic). Steven has taken a boy under his wing, called Martin (Barry Keoghan), to help him to cope with the loss of his father, who died in car accident ten years before. When the boy’s behaviour turns sinister, Steven will be asked to make a horrible sacrifice to re-establish the order of things and Martin’s personal sense of justice. How does Lanthimos’ revisitation of this tragedy end? Watch the film and find it out yourself.

Chi-Raq

Even Spike Lee didn’t struggle to find some inspiration from a classical Greek play. His 2015 musical dramedy Chi-Raq is based on Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, a comedy in which women withhold sex from their husbands in the attempt to put an end to the Peloponnesian War.

The award-winning US director moves the action to Chicago’s Southside, where a gang war rages between the Spartans, led by Demetrius Dupree (nicknamed Chi-Raq) and the Trojans, led by Cyclops. Here, after the tragic murder of a young girl by a stray bullet, a group of women led by Lysistrata organise a protest movement that challenges the nature of race, sex and violence. The breathtaking pace, the over-the-top production design and the star studded cast (including Nick Cannon, Jennifer Hudson, Angela Bassett, John Cusack, and Samuel L Jackson, among others) are icing on cake.

Medea

One of the leading European intellectuals of the 20th century, Pier Paolo Pasolini directed a feature inspired by Euripides’ tragedy of the same name. Medea (1969) is one of the rare films that, despite the presence of scripted dialogues, more closely follows the original structure of the play.

In it, Medea is the Queen of Colchis and a powerful sorceress (played by world-known Greek soprano Maria Callas) who helps Jason (Giuseppi Gentile) stealing the Golden Fleece and reclaiming his throne. Later, Jason grows tired of Medea and marries a Corinthian princess, Glauce (Margareth Clémenti). Medea, who bears Jason two sons, is enraged and plots a tragic revenge against the man and his new bride. More than 50 years later, Pasolini’s take on the myth still delivers well the gruesome, unsettling atmosphere typical of Euripides’ work, enriched by an engrossing instrumental score.

Antigone

The fourth film is Sophie Deraspe’s Antigone (2019), a critically acclaimed adaptation of Sophocles’ tragedy of the same name. The Canadian filmmaker transposes the story to a modern day refugee family in Montreal. The film follows the titular model-citizen, studious teenage girl (played by talented newcomer Nahéma Ricci), whose life is turned upside down when her brother Polynice  (Rawad El-Zein) is arrested and she comes up with a dangerous plan to take his place in jail.

This modern reworking of the tragedy, even though it significantly deviates from the play’s original plot, is a compelling drama about family loyalty and self-sacrifice.

Oldboy

Winner of the Grand Prix at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy is a disquieting action thriller revolving around a Korean man called Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik), who is arrested and misses his daughter’s birthday back in 1988. After his release, the man is kidnapped and wakes up in a sealed hotel room, where he will be forced to spend his next 15 years.

Once freed in 2003, he meets a charming young chef, Mi-do (Kang Hye-jung) and receives a call from his captor, a businessman called Lee Woo-jin (Yoo Ji-tae), who challenges him to find out the motive for his imprisonment within five days. If successful, Woo-jin will kill himself; otherwise, he will kill Mi-do. The development of this premise, crazy and convoluted, will reveal the viewers disturbing connections with Sophocles’ tragedy Oedipus the King and the lead characters’ real identity.

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