NEW YORK — `TODAY, so many centuries later, we recognize the `Iliad' and the `Odyssey' as the first image-producing factories."
So writes commentator Andreas Tyros, linking the heritage of ancient Greek literature and art with the thoroughly modern tradition of filmmaking. It may sound like an odd connection at first. Yet many of ancient Greece's finest achievements are deeply visual - the Parthenon and the Homeric poem appeal to the eye, or to the mind's eye - and many a filmmaker has drawn on Greek ideals for inspiration, consciously or not.
Mr. Tyros's comment appears in the catalog for "CineMythology: A Retrospective of Greek Film," the first exhibition to present an overview of Greek cinema in its huge variety. Soon to begin an international tour after its two-month run at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) here, it's a festival studded with major stars such as Melina Mercouri and Irene Papas, whose charismatic charms have boosted the reputation of Greek film around the world.
Yet it's also a serious examination of social, cultural, and political issues that have coursed through Greek movies throughout their history. Few national cinemas have been more strongly buffeted by turmoil in the society around them. And few have boasted a greater array of artists willing to grapple with those events - either directly or by exploring the human values that lie behind them - and transform these into aesthetically meaningful forms that reach out to audiences everywhere.
"Greek film has an obsession with reinterpreting history," says program organizer Jytte Jensen.
"The films are fascinated with the social and political events of their country, and with the individuals living in that setting. I don't know of any other cinema - except German film, perhaps - where the concern with specific social and political events is so striking," she adds.
This is due largely to the tumultuous nature of modern Greek history, from the disruptions of World War II and the Greek civil war to the period of military rule in the 1960s and an economic crisis that nearly killed Greek cinema during the '70s.
Another deep concern has been the transition of Greece from an agrarian to an industrial society. "The social fabric started coming apart at the seams, and this had a great effect on filmmaking," Ms. Jensen says.
Running just beneath the turbulent surface of Greek life, however, has been a constant awareness of the centuries-old Greek heritage. "There is a tendency there to measure life by ancient history and ideals," Jensen says. "So in many films there is a prevailing atmosphere of longing for an innocence and beauty connected with those ideals. This often brings despair and tragedy.... But it's frequently a heroic tragedy."
An example of this is the 1954 classic "Stella" with Ms. Mercouri as a spirited woman longing for a liberated life. "There's a duality between her energy and exuberance," Jensen says, "and the tragedy that comes to her. It's inevitable, because her ideals - her search for the right way to live - just can't be achieved in that society."
Jensen made her selections for the retrospective by sifting through an enormous range of films made in various styles, genres, and historical periods, doing much of her work in Athens at the official Greek archive.
Highlights of "CineMythology" range from "The Ogre of Athens," a ferocious 1956 tragicomedy that echoes Kafka and anticipates Fellini, to "A Foolish Love," a 1981 drama that recalls the Hollywood classic "Rear Window."
Among the most celebrated filmmakers on the program are Theo Angelopoulos, with his moody "Voyage to Cythera" and other films; Michael Cacoyannis, represented by "Stella," the classical "Iphigenia," and other work; and Jules Dassin, whose rollicking "Never on Sunday" is perhaps the most widely popular Greek film of all time.
* After June 14, `CineMythology' travels to the Pacific Film Archive at the University Art Museum in Berkeley, Calif.; the Film Center at the Art Institute of Chicago; the Cleveland Museum of Art; the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston; and other locations in the United States, Canada, England, and New Zealand.