Eleni, left alone by her husband who is building a new life for his family in America, is forced to deal with the Communists who take over the mountain village she lives in. She attempts to accommodate them, but at every step they ask more, until it becomes clear that they intend to take her children away. But this she will not allow, and she arranges to have them taken to safety. The Communists, in revenge, execute her. Years later, her son returns, a successful journalist. The statute of limitations has run out on war crimes, so he seeks out for himself those who shot his mother, with the vague intention of perhaps killing at least the judge. Scenes from the two times frames alternate.
Intercutting of related stories has a long, not particularly successful, history in the movies. As it happens, I recently saw Intolerance, D.W. Griffith's monumental film from 1917, which is the first major use of this technique. In Intolerance, four stories, unrelated other than through vague reliances on the theme of intolerance, are intercut. Griffith used clever juxtaposition, so that, for instance, switching from one to the next, Christ is crucified, the Huguenots are killed in the Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre, a girl races to inform Babylon of the Assyrian attack, and a racing car chases a speeding train to obtain an innocent man's pardon just as he is about to be hung.
The trick of the technique is to establish the links between the separate threads, and, then, to have each thread re-enforce the others. The more closely related the different plot lines, in terms of subject, theme, time of occurrence, shared characters, method of presentation, etc., the easier it is to combine them. As an example of the technique being used successfully, one might consider Paul Schrader's recent film, Mishima. In that film, three separate but related lines were cleverly woven to produce a single whole. As Schrader's success showed, theme is perhaps the most important element of all when using this structure. Intolerance failed, in large part, because the unifying theme was somewhat murky, due to the fact that it was not originally conceived in its final form. Eleni fails because, while there is an overlap in the subject matter and some overlap in the characters, Eleni's story is that of a mother's love, while her son's story is one of revenge.
Peter Yates, the director of Eleni has made some very good films. He is unable, though, to deal with the fundamental problem of the structure, that cutting from one story to another disrupts the emotions generated by each story, breaking the audience's involvement with the story. Every time that Yates cuts from the story of Eleni to the story of her son, the picture loses a little steam. When they cut back, Yates must work hard to bring us back to the emotional point at which he left us. This difficulty is compounded by the fact that almost everything about Eleni's story is interesting, and almost everything about her son's story is dull. (Another fundamental principle of this sort of film is that the quality of the film as a whole is limited by the quality of the worst plot line.)
Steve Tesich, better known for bicycle movies, has done a mixed job on the script. The civil war sequences are very good, the modern sequences mostly flat. The dialog is fairly good throughout. The characterization of Eleni is good, that of Gage opaque. I found myself alternating between feelings that Tesich was right for the job and dead wrong. I think that, had he not been constrained to use the interwoven format, Tesich would have done a better job. (The constraint may have been self-imposed.)
Kate Nelligan is excellent as Eleni, but her performance is sabotaged by the intercutting. As she builds towards a climax, Yates cuts away. In individual scenes, she has some very, very fine moments. Nelligan courageously gives up entirely any attempt to look beautiful in a glamorous sense, suggesting instead the faded beauty of the mother of five children, still lit from within by a fierce and unquestioning love of her family. Eleni is a mother who thinks, first, last, and always, of her children, and Nelligan captures her perfectly.
Would that John Malkovich, who plays her grown son, had been half so good. Normally an actor with fire and conviction, Malkovich sleepwalks through this part, lending neither intensity nor credibility to his role. He is, unfortunately, dull, matching the other elements of this portion of the film.
Similarly, the supporting cast in the civil war segments is mostly strong, while that in the modern segment is weak. When a film or play is working, there is sometimes an electricity which communicates itself to everyone involved, sparking better performances and technical contributions. Similarly, when things don't work, the general lethargy can spread to everyone, weighing the whole enterprise down like lead. Apparently, both of these happened on Eleni.
On the whole, I cannot recommend Eleni to anyone who is not predisposed to see it in the first place. Kate Nelligan's superb performance and the generally well-handled Greek Civil War sequences cannot overcome the poorly handled modern sequences. As is too often the way, the good elements do not elevate the bad ones; rather, the bad ones drag down the good. Only Nelligan herself emerges totally successful, and she has much reason for complaint, as the failure of the rest of the film may cost her an Academy Award nomination, which certainly would be hers were the whole film up to the level of her achievement.
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