In the eons since Zeus permitted the sun god Helios to create the island of Rhodes (450 miles southeast of Athens in the aqua waters of the Aegean Sea), it's been one damned thing after another for the citizens of this meteorological and botanical paradise: They've been enslaved at most, or exploited at least, by Phoenicians, Minoans, Achaians, Dorians, Persians, Macedonians, Romans, Saracens, Venetians, Genoans, Turks and Italians. Give or take.
The latest and largest invasion--700,000 foot soldiers each year, on an island with a population one-tenth of that--is the tourist army that has turned the City of Rhodes itself (population 41,000) into a Mediterranean Vegas, a bizarre open-air bazaar where drunken Swedes dance like Zorba on restaurant tables while relatively restrained Germans simply slide under their chairs and snore. No wonder the presence of several dozen other invaders, film makers from London financed by producers from Los Angeles, has gone virtually unnoticed.
"What movie?" wonders the bartender at Alexis in the Old City, the walled medieval village that is the town's only tourist attraction unblemished by tourism. The answer: "Pascali's Island," a $4-million art epic, starring Ben Kingsley, Helen Mirren and Charles Dance, written and directed by James Dearden, 38, an Oxford University grad (French lit, modern history) who not long ago gained fame for the script of "Fatal Attraction."
Set in 1908 on an unnamed Greek island under Turkish occupation, the movie has been funded by the L.A. production-distribution company Avenue Entertainment, which draws on money from Citicorp Investment Bank and Harvard University Endowment to make what Avenue chairman Cary Brokaw (formerly of Island Pictures) terms "good movies for an adult audience."
The maiden voyage has gone smoothly, but it has been beset by a few swells, large and small. Large swell, logistical division: Greece. Small swell, logistical division: ringworm. Small swell, publicity division: Ben Kingsley. Large swell, publicity division: the title.
Swells large and small, publicity division.
Brokaw is wearing white tennis shorts and standing on a winding road in the Old City. The only props required to turn the clock back 80 years are a swoosh of black spray paint on an iron door and the positioning of a sign that reads, "Banque Imperiale Ottomane." While Brokaw watches Kingsley, cast as Basil Pascali, rehearse walking through the door, he explains why American money is backing a British film. "Eric Fellner, the producer of 'Sid & Nancy,' brought James' script to the Cannes Film Festival; he hadn't been able to raise the money in England. We were very impressed, but we wanted some changes. James, who's based in London, was brought by Paramount to Los Angeles for post-production on 'Fatal Attraction,' so Paramount paid his way over to have meetings with us." Brokaw finds this very funny. "We see this as the perfect first production for our new company. It's a British film by passport, but we see it as an international production."
The international production that made "Pascali's Island" possible was the wildly unexpected success of James Ivory's "A Room With a View," another "good movie for an adult audience." The difference is that Ivory's film, also British by passport, was a gentle romantic comedy of manners; "Pascali's Island" is a full-blown tragedy--by the end of the picture, the screen will be littered with the corpses of the leads. The movie also is a mystery (what is the strange British archeologist played by Dance doing on the island?), a microcosm of the nationalist squabbles that led to World War I ("We call it the battle of accents," says Mirren of a crowded scene in a tavern) and a steamy, if middle-aged, love story (Mirren and Dance do the oldest pas de deux of all).
It's not a teen movie and it's not "Rambo." It's not even "Fatal Attraction."
"I took an option on the novel by Barry Unsworth, first published in 1979, in 1985," the boyish Dearden says during a lunch break. "It was something I was desperately keen to do, but I thought I would have to wait years. I think of 'Casablanca' a good deal, which is not really about the Second World War, but the lives of disparate people, with large events as a backdrop. In 'Pascali's Island,' those events are always seen through Pascali's eyes. The ending should be an absolute hammer blow."
Dearden came up with a hammer blow to end "Fatal Attraction"--Michael Douglas was charged with murder--but it never landed. Instead, the movie was transformed into a yuppie "Halloween."
"I think with my ending," Dearden says, "it might have done well, but perhaps it wouldn't have broken out and become a . . . phenomenon. We'll never know. I'm ambivalent. The purist in me objects, but that's Hollywood, isn't it? I am thrilled it has broken out. If you write something for Hollywood, you know going in things will be changed. If you want to be true to yourself, you have to make films for a lot less money. Like this one."
Hitches large and small, logistical division.
"Doesn't do to sleep with any of this lot," says a British gofer, with a sweeping gesture that takes in everyone from star Kingsley to a crowd of local extras. "Might get ringworm." Ringworm?
"Well, a lot of this lot've got it," Kingsley frowns. "From giving it to one another, I expect." The other pastime, grousing about the Greeks, is no joke. Most Rhodians say they don't know what "Pascali's Island" is--they're too busy with the tourists who will desert the island when the season snaps shut this month to care--but the few who do are not amused. Fellner, 28, sympathizes with the antipathy: If a Greek film crew, non-English speaking, came to Los Angeles or London and started closing streets and disrupting local life, he doesn't think the Greeks would be particularly popular, either. It doesn't help that because the budget is tight, payoffs have been mingy. Unlike peasants on remote Greek islands, the affluent natives of Rhodes expect tourists to pay up--a cab driver brags that he makes more in the eight-month season here than colleagues in Athens collect in four years. When crew member Marianna Alexander, half Greek and fluent in the language, can't come up with a bribe to persuade a Greek merchant to turn down his radio, he shoves her into the street. The radio continues to blare. "The natural generosity of the Greeks," she says, "has been corrupted on Rhodes by the tourist business."
The police are cooperative but not much help. "There is a state of near-anarchy here," Dearden says. "This was a police state for so long, the people hate the police. Consequently, the police are afraid to intervene effectively if the set is not sealed."
Other obstacles have nothing to do with tourism. The 4,000 inhabitants of the nearby island of Symi arose in wrathful unanimity when the film makers tried to hoist a Turkish flag. The Symians claimed they had never been occupied by the Turks (not true--but they did have special status) and spat on the red cloth.
Back in Rhodes, it was the same story, though the Rhodians can hardly deny an occupation described in a local guidebook as "the darkest period" in the island's history.
"This is a film," says Dearden, "set during the Turkish occupation, and we haven't been able to fly a single Turkish flag. No one in government wanted to be the person to say it was OK. I wouldn't film in Greece again. The local government had to stamp every page of the script to make certain it wasn't Turkish propaganda, which it certainly is not. We didn't get the permits we needed until we threatened to film in Yugoslavia. Nor could we have Turks in the cast. The Greek actors won't even play Turks--the evil Pasha is a Jordanian and his assistant is a Pole."
"The problem with Greece," Fellner says, "is that it pretends to be one thing, but it's quite another. If you go to Guatamala, you know what you're going to get. But because you have the trappings of European life here--rental-car agencies and so forth--you assume the infrastructure is here. It's just not. The locations are brilliant, the light is wonderful, they're very willing, but some of them aren't that able. They promise everything--the local saying is, 'No problem'--but they don't come through."
On the way to the airport, the taxi driver, who wants to make a quick personal side trip, promises there's plenty of time. "No problem," he says. We arrive late.