“Almost 100,000 Greek refugees from the west coast of Asia Minor… were now confined to living… under the lowest step of the Greek urban social order… in a lifestyle that was considered borderline at best… in Piraeus’s slum cities… It was in these overcrowded, and economically and politically destitute, conditions during the thirties and forties that the Rembetiko genre of music reached its height in popularity. In Greece, Rembetiko had always been known as the songs of the outcasts.”
This is the preface to Rembetiko, ostensibly a fictionalised biopic of standout Rembetiko singer (or ‘Rebetisis’) Marika Ninou, but actually a biopic of Rembetiko music and ‘the entire Greek nation’, during the ‘time of tremendous transition and instability’ from 1919, through the Smyrna of Disaster of 1922, and on to the late ’50s. (That characterisation of this period, as a ‘time of tremendous transition and instability’, is actually an understatement: in the ’40s Greece endured World War II, Nazi occupation and civil war.)
The movie is a musical, but not in the sense the term suggests to those raised on the traditions of Holly- or Bollywood. Characters in Rembetiko do not sing when in life they would speak, as is standard in those aforementioned musicals, but rather are seen giving performances: singing on stages, on streets and around gravesides. Music is more important here than the parts of a picture — acting, story, dialogue, direction — on which a critic, or indeed an audience, is accustomed to focus. Rembetiko music — impassioned, exciting and evocative — binds this film. The singers act as a Greek chorus, summarising and foreshadowing the story, establishing mood and having always the first and final words on what we see onscreen.
And what we see onscreen is a potent and emotional drama, of the kind commonly made in India and commonly — and idiotically — dismissed in the West with a pejorative twisting of the word ‘melodrama’. Hitchcock defined drama as life with the boring bits taken out; Rembetiko gives us a life with only the most fraught moments left in. The subtlety of the acting, though, stops the film from sliding into histrionics. Sotiria Leonardou, as Ninou, carries the film — as much as anything that isn’t Rembetiko music can carry Rembetiko — but Michalis Maniatis, as her childhood friend Giorgakis, a quiet but crucial part, also deserves special praise.
As a film about, and driven by, a quintessentially Greek genre of music that also deals with events — the Greek Civil War, for example — draws a number of parallels with internationally famous films made before and since that indicate the universality of its appeal. Most obviously, some will see similarities with Olivier Dahan’s 2007 biopic of Edith Piaf, La Vie en rose. The way the tides of a country’s history are chronicled as the background to the lives of artists practicing a fragile national art will remind many of Farewell My Concubine, and the way the film focuses on one wilful woman who becomes, in part, emblematic of her country recalls Mehboob Khan’s classic Mother India.
While this ensures Rembetiko cannot be thought inaccessible to non-Greeks, there are aspects of the film — gestures, themes, dialogue and, of course, music — the precise meaning of which is lost to anyone without expertise on Greek culture and experience. Such is the quality of this film, however, that these moments of confusion do not leave use stranded apathetically behind but rather make us keen to catch up. Like a book that inspires further reading, Rembetiko instils in us the sharp desire to discover more about the traditions its represents.
Some of our questions it prompts would surely be answered by the ‘Cine-Notes Collectible Booklet’ that is part of this DVD package. Unfortunately, the copy supplied to PopMatters did not feature this booklet, and so I cannot comment upon its contents, or give it a score here. The only other ‘special feature’ Facets Video have included is ‘40 minutes of additional footage’ — which is their peculiar way of pointing out that the film on this disc is the original 150-minute version, and not the 110-minute cut formally released in the US. The extra 40 minutes give the film an epic feel to match its epic scope — and this is categorically the cut of the film that all interested in Rembetiko should watch — but simply featuring the original cut is no more a ‘special feature’ of this ‘special edition’ than are its English subtitles.
Even with so few — or even no — special features, though, this DVD comes strongly recommended. Rembetiko is a powerful, moving and endearing film: an impressive examination, seen from the underclass up, of Greece in the first half of the 20th Century, and a glorious celebration of the music that sprang from it.
Reviews of Rembetiko are generally afflicted by two clichés. The first (writing that Rembetiko music is a Greek equivalent of American blues) I have deliberately avoided. The second I do not wish to avoid: it is to say that, on its original release, this film inspired in Greece a Rembetiko revival. The release of this DVD deserves to have a similar effect, inspiring an international interest in an unfairly unknown art form.