Nikos Koundouros’ 1963 adaptation of the Longus’ ancient text “Daphnis and Chloe” into a moody, existentialist dissection of erotic obsession will invigorate those who love avant-garde cinema while disturbing those who are uncomfortable with the subject of youth sexuality.
Set in 200 BC, the story follows a group of male shepherds who arrive at a seaside location populated entirely by women. They are the wives of the local fishermen, who are all out at sea.
There is relatively little contact between the groups, with two exceptions. The youngest member of the shepherds, a boy named Skymnos, begins a near-silent relationship with the girl Chloe that fumbles and bumbles slowly into their mutual discovery of love and sex. (If you have problems with films about kids inching towards sexual maturity, this film will tilt your “ick” factor.)
Then there is an older shepherd, Tsakalos, who becomes infatuated with the beautiful Arta. Her husband is away at sea and she is occupying her time trapping birds in nets, only to set them free immediately. Unlike the younger pair, this duo embarks on a series of enigmatic conversations that seem closer in spirit to Antonioni or Resnais instead of Longus.
If Koundourous was not the most subtle director in regard to visual imagery (the location is covered with nets that catch birds, fishes and, of course, lovers), he nonetheless reconfigured the old story into a striking, haunting parable of emotions ignited and hearts deflated. Giovanni Variano’s stark black-and-white cinematography and Yannis Markopoulos’ haunting traditional Greek folk music score create an astonishing style that brings both poetry and malice to the proceedings.
And without giving away the surprise ending, let’s just say the astonishing performances by the child actors Kleopatra Rota as Chloe and Vangelis Joannides as Skymnos offer a devastating range of emotions that will leave the viewer haunted and jolted.
“Young Aphrodites” was something of an art house sensation in its day, winning several major awards and critical acclaim. For whatever reason, it fell off the radar and has been unavailable for many years. Its return via an American DVD release should help re-establish its status as a classic of Greek cinema.