The Museum of Fine Arts kicks off its Greek film festival in fine form with Stella (1955), a good old-fashioned melodrama about a small town's big woman who loves men hard and leaves them fast. It's one of eleven movies that the Museum of Modern Art presented this past spring at "Cinemythology: A Retrospective of Greek Film," the first-ever major exhibition of Greek cinema.

The Stella of the title (played by the dynamic Melina Mercouri) is a chanteuse at the Paradise Tavern, in a seaport town where the men, when they're not dancing to bouzouki music, chase after Stella through the streets. With good reason: Stella is beautiful, proud, independent, fiery, gutsy -- liberated (at least in a stereotypical, Greek, 1950s way). Burning with a hard gemlike flame, she dyes her hair, wears tight clothes, smokes up a storm, commits to one man at a time, has no intention of marrying, and says things like: "Love me as I am. If that doesn't suit you, go back to your world and leave me in peace."

Two men in particular can't seem to do this: sensitive Aleko (Alekos Alexandrakis), a gentleman caller with a troubled past, and macho Milto (Giorgos Foundas), who carries dynamite in his pocket. Much to the displeasure of the womenfolk, both want to marry Stella, to possess and change her, so captivated that they can't help but mess with a good thing.

Full of fist-poundings and face slaps, seaside passion and dying kisses, desperate ultimatums and dramatic showdowns, stellar Stella is grand tragedy, grandly made by writer/director Michael Cacoyannis (Zorba the Greek and Electra, which stars Irene Papas and is upcoming in this series). A superb filmmaker, he creates a stunning character-revealing dance sequence and somehow photographs Stella as witch and angel, wild woman and devoted lover, all at the same time. Watch where he places the camera.

The acting is fearless (catch Mercouri and Foundas in the international hit Never on Sunday), as it should be in a movie in which the doomed heroine screams, "I can't breathe. I want to sing, to feel alive. I'm choking, do you hear?"

--Peter Szatmary

Stella will show at 5 p.m. Sunday, January 23 at the Museum of Fine Arts, 1001 Bissonnet. Never on Sunday will follow at 7 p.m. Call 639-7515 for more information about the Greek film festival.


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