Greek Cinema 1965-1971: How gender relations are reflected at the food table
There is no better way to explore Greek Cinema than looking into dinner and lunch times around tables in filmic representations. Taking into consideration that Greek Cinema flourished during the 1960s with the rise of the Old Greek Cinema, this article aims to investigate how people connected and evolved in relation to a piece of furniture, the table, during a period characterized by identity crisis, social and political instability, but, also, a developed cinematic phase. The table is used as a symbol for a better understanding of femininity, masculinity, gender relations, customs, values and traditions as well as a modernized lifestyle. Table rituals and food manners reveal the national traits of Greek society in this specific time period.
While exploring the Old Greek Cinema, the omnipresence of food table is noticeable. Social relationships and national traits can be discovered around the dinner table. Sharing a meal with someone on a table comes along with sharing feelings, ideas, thoughts, as well as provides a sense of belonging to a wider group. On top of that, the table can become the space of ceremony and solidarity but also, an occasion for negative memories and tragedies. In filmic representations, who joins the food table, who cooks the food, who sets the table, who sits next to whom, what people eat, what people talk about, what subjects they avoid, while the surroundings of the table, size, material even the absence of it, raise awareness around Greek (cinematic) history. Films produced during this specific time period, open up a potential dialogue. Gender, lifestyle, social class, politics and popular culture conflicts are negotiated on the table. For all the above reasons, table in Greece cinema deserves a closer and thorough look.
‘Dinner is ready!’: Identities and food on the table
In the three films to be examined next, Greek cinema reflects female and male representation in Greek society with the help of the dinner table. The table in the following three different film scenes constitutes the perfect tool to examine gender relations in mid and late 1960s.
I de Yini na Fovite ton Andra/ And the Wife Shall Revere Her Husband
The 1965 film, directed by Yorgos Tzavellas, describes the life of Antonis Cocovikos (Yorgos Constantinou) and his wife, Eleni (Maro Kontou). Antonis, an office worker in a Greek Ministry, treats Eleni as a slave. Eleni is uneducated, unemployed, without any social life and her sole responsibility is to prepare the food and set the table in anticipation of Antonis’ return. Antonis is presented as a hard-working employee, who, however, has not yet succeeded to get a senior position, and expects Eleni to always have the food ready on the table when he returns from work. Eleni suffers from Antonis’ petulance. She obeys his rules, while the neighbors do not talk to her because she is ‘astefanoti’, a degrading term for women who are not married but have a partner. Having spent over ten years together, Antonis decides to marry Eleni. However, right after the wedding, Eleni’s attitude changes dramatically. She transforms into a confident and sociable woman, no longer concerned about the everyday chores of the household, the food and table setting.
The environment around the dinner table in the house reflects Greek society of the mid-1960s. Both the director, Tzavellas, and the set designer, Petros Capouralis, acknowledge the role of the table throughout the film. The table is the connecting link between each scene, as the camera moves from the food table inside the house, to the wedding table in the tavern by the use of a match cut.
At the beginning of the film, Eleni has cooked Antonis’ favorite dish, set the table with a kempt tablecloth, clean plates and cutlery, while she waits for Antonis to return from the office. When Antonis returns, Eleni informs him that dinner is ready, by using the word ‘table’ rather than ‘dinner’. The word ‘table’ (trapezi in Greek) has a dual meaning: the piece of furniture and the food that is served on the table. Despite the fact that Eleni has been waiting for him the entire day in order to enjoy dinner together and share their news, Antonis returns from work tired and angry. He replies that he has already had dinner at a tavern. Immediately, Eleni cleans the table and says that if she has to eat alone she is not interested to eat at all. Although Eleni is socially expected to wait for him, Antonis is not bound to wait for her. Furthermore, Eleni refuses to eat without him. Her own survival depends on him and her world revolves around him. In this case, her world is the table itself. If the table does not include him, she will take back all of her belongings (the silverware) and the table will not have a meaning anymore.
After the wedding, the table reflects the couple’s crisis. From the table in the house, the camera now focuses on the table in the tavern where the couple is about to have their wedding reception. The wedding table consists of traditional dishes that correspond to a low class couple in the mid-1960s in Greece: a Greek salad, bread and olives as appetizers. When one of the guests, Mikes, starts eating, his wife, Liza, shouts at him: ‘take your hands off the table! Wait for the married couple!’. Once again, the importance of waiting around the table is highlighted. The women are also talking about Eleni’s future: ‘Antonis has to buy a nice house for Eleni’, one of her friends states. It becomes clear that Eleni’s friends depend on Antonis for Elenis’ future.
In the meanwhile, Eleni and Antonis go home in order to change clothes. Nevertheless, the couple fights around their table because Eleni told Antonis to ‘shut up’. From a woman who was constantly obeying her partner, she has now gained confidence and wants Antonis to follow her rules. The result is that the couple never joins their wedding table, and their love does not become official as they immediately decide to get a divorce. At the end of the film, the couple gets back together. Women’s position in this fictional Greek society is reflected realistically, and Yorgos Tzavellas describes a world where the tables reflect couple’s problems and constitute a microcosm. In the first crisis, the table had to be cleaned up, and in the second crisis, the couple was absent from the wedding table.
Jenny Jenny (Dinos Dimopoulos, 1966) is a romantic comedy in which Jenny Skoutari (Jenny Karezi) and Nikos Mantas (Andreas Mparkoulis) are forced by their families to get married for economic and political advantage. The white marriage takes place and at the end of the film, they both realise that they have true feelings for each other. Jenny’s father is a loyal fan of politician Gkortsos, while Nikos is Kassandris’ nephew, who belongs to the opposite political party. Jenny is well educated, a college student of Literature and she only agrees to this mariage blanc because part of the agreement was that Kassandris will pay off her father’s debt. Although Nikos is at first in love with another woman, he agrees to the plan. He understands that Jenny will improve his image for the forthcoming elections, as he has no knowledge of politics, unlike her. Once again, in this film the ubiquity of the food table contributes to the dynamic of the characters as well as the plot.
The wedding reception at the backyard of Nikos’ house officialises Jenny’s and Nikos’ commitment. A wide shot at the large table full of flowers, pictures the happy family faces, the sad couple who does not feel comfortable sitting next to each other and does not want to drink nor eat. Apart from the couple, everyone enjoys the variety of fruits combined with red wine. The day after the wedding reception, Jenny gets jealous when Nikos’ first love called him on the phone. ‘I invited her for dinner’, Jenny announces sarcastically and Nikos replies: ‘We are not going to invite her for dinner! This crosses the line!’. It becomes clear that table is taken seriously. It is very important who gets invited, who does not get invited, who sits next to whom and how they feel about it, who eats and drinks and who does not. The table is a sacred space where only the closest members of the family are welcomed. In other words, even if the marriage is fake the time spent at this dining table is real. During table time, their relationship is honest, their identities are true and there are no lies.
In the film, Jenny and Nikos are also presented having lunch with Jenny’s parents and relatives at the backyard. The way the camera is set feels as if the viewers are part of the table sitting next to the actors and listening to their conversation. It is obvious that both families belong to upper class. The table is decorated with a stylish tablecloth, the glasses are gold and red, and the plates full of food. Men belonging to upper class wear formal suits, while the fisherman who comes to join the meal to express his thoughts about the island’s everyday problems wears short-sleeved shirt. Jenny wears a formal dress. Nevertheless, she eats with her hands, an act that symbolizes her free spirit and her will to live against rules, in a conservative, in all other respects, Greek island and lifestyle. At this point, it is remarkable to mention Nikos’ phrase that concludes the role of the table in Jenny Jenny: ‘I saw the sadness at the table when we had lunch’. During lunch time at the table, Nikos learnt about the island’s problems: mass migration that has depopulated the island, extremely low pensions for the islanders provided by the government, overfishing resulted in the decrease in the catch of fish. The table here is the podium that local people have in order to raise their voice and be heard. The table functions as the parliament, the mirror of Greek society and its issues that made Nikos sad but encouraged him to find the truth in politics, and also, in his personal life. The subjects discussed on the table, helped Nikos to open his eyes, reprioritize his life, and eventually fall truly in love with Jenny.
O Striglos pou Egine Arnaki/ The Stern Man Who Became a Lamb
Directed in 1968 by Alekos Sakellarios and with Petros Capouralis as a set decorator, romantic comedy O Striglos pou Egine Arnaki describes how a typical Greek family handles the absence of a female figure. Leonidas (Lampros Konstantaras) lost his wife unexpectedly and struggles to create a household for his three children, Kimon (Pavlos Liaros), Andreas (Thanassis Papadopoulos) and Babis (Vangelis Ioannidis). Leonidas is a successful sea captain, however, after the death of his wife he has not succeeded in establishing a warm house with food supplies and a well-decorated food table for his three sons. His sons are not interested in helping him and although they confess that the house is a mess, they are not willing to take actions to restore it. The table in this film has a leading role. From the beginning of the film until the end, the table leads the plot, the characters and has a straightforward magnitude.
In this film, the table becomes a synonym for the household: chaos when the house is a mess, but also harmony and peace when the house is clean and tidy. At some point in the film, Leonidas returns from work and finds the table with leftovers from the previous night and a smelly casserole (left side of picture bellow) – depicted in a close up to the table –, which stresses the family’s degradation. ‘If this was a house, the table should have been cleaned and fully prepared by now!’, the father shouts to his three sons. Then, he asks them to help him get rid of the leftovers and set the table. One of the sons is forced by Leonidas to buy the bread, another is responsible for chopping tomatoes and potatoes – the few food supplies the kitchen had. At the same time, the third son sets the table with a bed sheet, as there is no tablecloth, and brings a bathrobe instead of napkins. Finally, after more than ten minutes, they all sit at the table, eating with bare hands, and the atmosphere is tense. Leonidas fights with his sons for their inappropriate food manners and their indifference to improve their way of living. This long scene demonstrates the father’s hopeless efforts to create a household for his family while points out his sons’ apathy.
Although Leonidas has gained the acceptance of his ship crew, this is not the case with his family. Even though he is high in the hierarchy at work, he is hopeless at home. Although he can afford to buy ingredients and cook, he expects his sons but, mostly, a woman to do that for him. Only the appearance of a female will save the future of Leonidas’ family. Mary (Maro Kontou) undertakes a hard project: the creation of a harmonious household. Now, a close up to the stylishly decorated dining table, underlines the intervention of a female figure (right side of picture below). Clean tablecloth, serviettes, elegant glasses, delicate silverware and savoir-vivre dinnerware with separate plates for each dish, indicates the beginning of a new era for the family. Along with setting the table and the comprehension of food manners, a state of security and tranquility is established in the family. The members of the family learnt to eat with forks and knifes, set the table properly and discuss in a polite way. This education was provided by Mary with the help of the table and its ritual.
The three films examined here have a lot in common as far as the table is concerned. The table is not solely functional in the above-mentioned cinematic universe because each time, it alsoserves different meanings with food rituals as a commonplace. In I de Yini na Fovitai ton Andra, the table reveals an aspect of gender identities in the 1960s, as Eleni is the one who sets the table and waits for her husband to eat together. Here, the table has no meaning without Antonis’ presence or without the couple’s peaceful relationship. In Jenny Jenny the table is a focal point of who is welcomed in the family or not as it is unacceptable for Nikos’ first love to sit at the food table, while hides inner feelings, because the discussions raised on the table enabled Nikos to see and face the truth. In O Striglos pou Egine Arnaki, the table with its necessary food manners introduced by Mary strengthen the family bond and resulted in the social well-being of its members.
Note: Part 2 of the article ‘Greek Cinema 1965-1971: How gender relations are reflected at the food table’ will follow in the next blog post.