A controversial movie

In his past two press conferences in Athens, Paris-based Greek filmmaker Constantin Costa-Gavras appeared unwilling to divulge too much information. Last Tuesday morning at the French Institute’s auditorium, though, he was more than eager to talk despite his initial discomfort at the flattering introduction he was given by Thessaloniki Film Festival Director Michel Demopoulos and the educational attache of the French Embassy, Fanny Aubert-Malaurie. The focal point of the press conference was the opening of his latest film, «Amen,» which was shown in an avant-premiere screening at a tribute to the director in the Astron Filmcenter and opens today in mainstream movie theaters. «I always wanted to make a film about Nazism,» said Costa-Gavras, referring to «Amen,» which deals with the Vatican’s reluctance to oppose the Nazis’ extermination of Jews. «Of course, it was preceded by ‘Music Box,’ but this time I wanted to look at the issue from the position of power. ‘Amen’ is a play by Rolf Hochhuth and it is based on real events, though there are some fictional elements. Until recently, the rights to the play were blocked by a very mysterious company… As soon as they became available, we went ahead with it.» Though «Amen» deals with such a sensitive political subject – and one which is seldom addressed – the director admitted that initial public reactions were directed toward the billboard poster designed by Olivieri Toscani, the man behind the famous Benetton campaign. «We were sued by a super-conservative Catholic organization which is led by one of Le Pen’s most ardent followers. Of course, we were acquitted. «Reactions to the film itself were more tempered. I appeared on television with a Catholic bishop who impressed me with his level-headedness. He wanted to know more,» said Costa-Gavras. The main reason why he wanted to make «Amen» was not in order to make an historical film, but to draw attention to the Vatican’s stance during the Holocaust. «Even today we see terrible things happening and the Vatican remaining quiet. Think of what the head of the Catholic Church had to say to Africa’s AIDS victims. He suggested they practice abstinence! Churches are not on the side of man, but of dogma,» said the director. On a different note, Costa-Gavras discussed the domination of a small number of Hollywood studios over the international film industry and his own involvement in the American production world. «When you go to America you have to live by the system,» he argued. «But I set my limits. I took my own crew from France and did most of my post-production in Paris. Don’t forget that in every film I did over there, I had the last word on the script, casting and editing… A director needs to accept the logic of Hollywood but not succumb to it.» «Amen» stars Ulrich Tukur as an SS officer who wants to end the extermination of Jews and Mathieu Kassovitz as a priest who assists him in getting near the pope. How was it for Costa-Gavras to direct a director, such as Kassovitz? «I was originally looking for an Italian actor for Kassovitz’s role. I went to Rome and saw many young actors but they all reminded me of pumped-up Californians. Kassovitz was a bit nervous at first: ‘I am a kid from the country, how will I play an aristocrat? Plus, I am Jewish.’ But as soon as he put on his robes, he became a priest. Mathieu was easy to work with especially because he is a director and understood my problems.»

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