by James Karas
“EVERYTHING IS POSSIBLE.” That is the subtitle of God Loves Caviar, a film directed by Iannis Smaragdis that will premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. Perhaps not coincidentally it is a phrase that describes one of Smaragdis’ most cherished convictions.The film tells the story of Ioannis Varvakis a Greek pirate who made his fortune in Russia selling caviar and eventually became a great philanthropist during Greece’s War of Independence. He gave all for love.
Smaragdis is in Toronto for the premiere of his film. Asked how he chose the subject of the almost unknown Varvakis for his film he replies that it was a gift or largesse from a Higher Power. He believes that a Higher Power or an Ultimate Source gave him the opportunity and he went about executing it. Smaragdis also believes that if you want something badly enough and seek it, it will be granted to you. He considers himself to be the messenger or an intermediary of the Higher Power. In practical terms, the idea for doing a film about Varvakis was given to him by former student of the Varvakio High School of Athens (which was originally funded by the film’s hero and still bears his name). But according to Smaragdis the former student was also a mere messenger.
Smaragdis was attracted to the story because he considers Varvakis to be the prototype of the Greek of the Diaspora who leaves the motherland and returns wiser and perhaps richer. The Greek goes on a great Journey, like Odysseus, and returns to help those whom he left behind. He does not consider Varvakis as merely a historical figure or a man of the future but a Greek of the present, perhaps the ideal Greek of today and the best hope for Greece.The Greeks are a great people with a long history and the present crisis is a temporary setback from which they will emerge in a few years stronger than ever, according to Smaragdis. They have come a long way and they have a long way to go, he says with pride. He believes that directors and producers and in fact all artists have a duty to bring out the best in people especially when a country is going through a crisis. He considers God Loves Caviar as fulfilling such a responsibility.
This is Smaragdis’ third appearance at TIFF. He was first here in 1996 with Cavafy and returned in 2008 with El Greco, the award-winning telling of the life of his fellow Cretan. In fact Smaragdis was born about three hundred meters from the house where El Greco was born. El Greco is probably the single film seen by some half of the population of Greece thus making it the most watched Greek film. One million, two hundred thousand tickets were sold at theatres alone and the rest of the viewers saw it on DVDs, he states proudly. Then he adds that this was despite the fact that most Greek critics gave it an emphatic thumbs down.He knew that he will make God Loves Caviar even before he started shooting El Greco. The Message had arrived. Asked what problems he had in making the film, he replies that he had only three: money, money and money. There were four delays while filming the scenes with Catherine Deneuve alone, all related to the shortage of funds. But if the messenger did not come with a cheque, the Higher Power did grant luck to Smaragdis. He was able to find private investors who together with the help of the Greek Film Centre, the film was finally completed at a cost of €6.5 million. It is the most expensive Greek film ever made. The previous record, at €6.2 million, was held by El Greco.
Smaragdis uses actors from six countries starting with the German Sebastian Koch as Varvakis. No one could have done the role better than Koch, Smaragdis states with utter conviction. John Cleese was a comic riot and Catherine Deneuve is such a star that the cast and crew started applauding instinctively when she walked on the scene in her costume as Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia. He goes even further in his tribute: he credits the actors with wanting to help Greece which is generally getting a battering from all sides.He speaks with devotion and admiration about the music composer Minos Matsas and with sheer enthusiasm about directing the film despite all the difficulties.
He cannot disclose what his next project will be. As an intermediary, he will no doubt be given the message or his “prayer” will be answered. There is no doubt that a Messenger is out there ready to deliver the good news.For now the Messenger can find him in Toronto where God Loves Caviar will premiere on Thursday, September 13 and will be shown again on Friday and Saturday.
But He should not try to see the film – all tickets have been presold. Then again, He should never be pessimistic – the recipient of His message will remind him that Everything is Possible.