Where’s Young Calibos?
In 1963’s Young Aphrodites, director Nikos Koundouros takes viewers back to 200 B.C. for a retelling of the Greek myth of the nymphs. According to those old tales, the nymphs were mystical female creatures bound to a specific place, usually a stream or river. Often beautiful and beguiling, Nymphs were said to have strange effects on any men who wandered into their remote locales, experiencing madness or stupidity when in a nymph’s presence.
Young Aprhodites begins when some all-male shepherds reach water after a long, hot, dry trek across a desert. There are some women living here, but they all go into heading until the men leave. Only two females are out and about. One is Chloe (Kleopatra Rota), an adolescent girl who spends all her time fishing at the water’s edge. A shepherd boy, Skymnos (Vangelis Ioannidis), takes an interest in her and wonders how to get her to like him. The other woman is Arta (Eleni Prokopiou), who spends her days freeing birds from nets. She is pursued aggressively by the shepherd Tsakalos (Takis Emmanuel) who doesn’t take “no” for an answer.
There’s another myth at work here, the one surrounding this film’s history. Over the years, some have praised it for being erotic and sensual, while others have branded it as controversial and scandalous for its depiction of underage kids frolicking around the wilderness while not wearing a whole lot. I’m kind of not sure where I stand on this. On one hand, I agree that Rota and Ioannidis look way too young to be running around half-naked in an artsy European erotic flick. On the other hand, there’s no denying that adolescents are indeed curious about sex, whether in today’s world or back in ancient Greece. Although there is some brief nudity, Young Aphrodites is more about being suggestive when it comes to the good stuff. I’ll leave it up to you and your own sense of morality whether you find this film offensive.
OK, now that the uncomfortable paragraph is over, let’s talk about the movie itself. The story is just as much about wilderness survival as it is about romance, as a lot of time is devoted to the shepherd’s hard life after crossing the desert expanse. The shepherds’ leader walks with two crutches. We’re never told why, but this makes for a nice illustration about how difficult traveling is for these nomads. And even though the film is black and white, Koundouros excellently depicts the dry heat of the desert and the characters’ needy thirst, making it feel real for viewers.
Once the characters reach water, the rest of the film is devoted to the back-and-forth relationships that form between the two couples. Skymnos is unsure of how to attract Chloe to him, and she doesn’t make it easy for him. He follows her around, brings her a large bird she was unable to carry by herself, and he starts a fire for her, following the local custom. When she asks him to scale a mountain at night to prove his love for her, he explains that it can’t be done, and she tells him that’s why she asked him to do it. Tsakalos’s pursuit of Arta is more straightforward. They both know exactly what he’s after, and they don’t dance around the issue. He, too, has to prove himself to her, though, and he does so mostly through persistence.
I wonder what Young Aphrodites says about relationships. The men keep chasing after the women, who reject them over and over and over. And then, when the men are about to leave, the women suddenly break down and insist they stay. Are the women playing hard to get? Is this their way of maintaining control over the men? Are they just as confused about their feelings as the men are? The film doesn’t provide any answers, leaving viewers in a similar confused state.
Young Aphrodites has received tons of praise over the years for its look, and that’s warranted. Koundouros filmed it in the Greek countryside, throwing in some ancient ruins here and there. The result is some gorgeous scenery that looks authentically “lived in.” Too bad, then, that there are so many specks and scratches all over the picture on this DVD. I understand that this is an older, partially-obscure film, but the video defects were distracting from the story at times. The stereo sound is not flashy. There’s almost no dialogue—the characters mostly speak through their actions and their longing looks at one another—but the old-time Greek music sounds nice.
The “Director’s Vision” extra is a text quote from Koundouros, in which he says the film is about frustration—both sexual frustration and the frustration of trying to get his movies made in what was, I’m assuming, a censorship-happy environment. It’s unfortunate that this is all we get. There must be more information about this film and its director out there, and it would have been great to have more of his thoughts included. A text Koundouros filmography is also included.
Not really as scandalous or shocking as some have made it out to be, Young Aphrodites provides some intriguing food for thought. I fear, however, that many viewers might walk away unsatisfied. If you want to take this trip to Greece, make it a rental.