Ode to a Grecian Isle

Hristo (Takis Emmanuel) and Joana (Irene Papas) have a conversation about donkeys on the island of Santorini in STEPS (1966).

Who says trying to run away from your problems can’t be therapeutic? Sometimes you just need some time alone in a completely different environment to sort yourself out and get a different perspective. That is exactly what Joanna does. An aspiring artist who is stuck in a dead end existence in Athens, Greece, she takes a one month vacation away from the city. It is also a brief escape from living with her depressed father, who is still grieving over his wife’s death. Joanna takes a ferry to the island of Santorini and it is there that she opens up to new possibilities in her life as well as a renewed desire to make art again. This is the basic set-up of May Sarton’s 1963 novel Joanna and Ulysses but the 1966 film version entitled Steps (Greek title: Ta Skalopatia) takes numerous liberties with the story and turns it into something much more ambiguous and unresolved, courtesy of screenwriters Vassilis Vassilikos, Glenn P. Wolfe and Leonard Hirschfield, who also directs. It would be Hirschfield’s sole directorial feature.

Neither Wolfe, Vassilikos nor Hirschfield are names that would be recognized by most moviegoers but the latter two have impressive credentials in the film world. Vassilikos is a world renowned novelist, political activist and sometime actor who wrote the screenplays for such classic Greece-focused films as Young Aphrodites (1963) and Z (1969). Hirschfield came to prominence as an award-winning director/producer/cinematographer of TV commercials and would go on to serve as DP on two landmark indie productions of director Frank Perry – David and Lisa (1962) and Ladybug, Ladybug (1963). In later years, he would work as a second unit DP for director George P. Cosmatos on the films Tombstone (1993) and Shadow Conspiracy (1997). Incidentally, Cosmatos worked as an assistant director on Steps, which turns out to be an odd bird indeed.

The movie was a U.S./Greek co-production which was shot in English with a mostly Greek cast except for Italian actor Umberto Orsini and was designed as a starring vehicle for Irene Papas. The Greek actress was at the peak of her fame in the mid-sixties with such high profile roles behind her like The Guns of Navarone (1961), Electra (1962), Walt Disney’s The Moon-Spinners (1964) and Zorba the Greek (1964). Steps was also shot on location in Santorini before it became such a popular tourist destination in the 1970s and the setting and terrain is much rougher and forbidding than the postcard images of the island. In fact, the island was still suffering from the economic decline that followed in the wake of a catastrophic earthquake in 1956 as seen in the destroyed villages and buildings featured in Steps.

A shot of the earthquake damage on the Greek island of Santorini in 1956.

In the original novel, Joanna (it is spelled Joana in the film) arrives on the island and almost immediately comes to the aid of a donkey that is being savagely beaten by its owner. She ends up buying the animal, which she calls Ulysses, and most of the novel depicts the relationship between Joanna and the donkey and how they help heal each other. The film version does include the initial meeting of Joanna and Ulysses but then goes off in an entirely different direction. No, the donkey doesn’t inspire Joanna to create great works of art and become a world famous artist. It’s not that kind of movie. Nor is it similar to Au Hasard, Balthazar, Robert Bresson’s 1966 masterpiece about a much-abused donkey that becomes a quasi-religious/spiritual poem on suffering in an indifferent universe.

A typical scene from present day Santorini (from Traveler by Unique website; Dimitra Vrana).

Instead, Ulysses becomes a supporting character as Joanna interacts with the Santorini villagers, who are mostly uneducated, hard-working peasants with a suspicion of outsiders, especially a city dweller like Joanna. Her purchase of Ulysses earns her the title of “the mad lady” because her motive makes no sense to them. Why spend so much money to buy a donkey that you treat as a pet and don’t put to use? Joanna’s kindness and independence also arouse the curiosity of the locals, especially Hristo (Takis Emmanuel) and his young son Nikolas (Costas Mastofos). It is inevitable that Joanna and Hristo will be attracted to each other and begin a courtship dance. But Steps also changes Joanna’s backstory. She didn’t leave a despairing father behind in Athens. It was her husband Roberto (Umberto Orsini), whom she married immediately after WW2 when they both were young. The couple was emotionally scarred by the war, having lost their families, but Joanna still seems haunted by the tragedy in ways that magnify her insecurities.

Irene Papas as Joanna seemingly adapts well to the Santorini lifestyle in STEPS (1966), named after the 600 steps required to reach the mountaintop village.

On Santorini Joanna starts to come out of her shell and to exercise her artistic talents again, painting and sketching scenes of her picturesque location. But it is only a matter of time before Roberto will arrive to fetch her and bring her back to Athens as his dutiful housewife. Will she resist and stay on the island?

While the novel Joanna and Ulysses was a depiction of a woman’s compassion for a beast of burden and their mutually beneficial relationship, Steps transforms the story into a pre-feminist movement portrait of a woman trying to find herself without limitations imposed on her by men. Roberto expects her to serve him at home and also continue to work to supplement their meager income (he toils at a trucking firm and occasionally handles case work as a lawyer – huh?). Hristo turns out to be even more traditional and backward in his ideas about the sexes while Santorini is clearly a patriarchal culture that views an independent spirit like Joanna as crazy. In less enlightened times, she would probably be burned as a witch or stoned.

In some ways, Steps is comparable to Roberto Rossellini’s Stromboli (1950), in which Ingrid Bergman plays the immigrant bride of an Italian fisherman and finds herself completely alienated and shut out of her community on a volcanic island. Like Bergman’s character, Joanna also feels trapped by her marital situation and has to adjust to an environment that is taxing on a physical and cultural level. The difference, of course, is that Joanna can leave at any time but her pride won’t let her lest she admit defeat.

Joanna (Irene Papas) struggles to make it to the hilltop village of Santorini but refuses help in the 1966 film STEPS.

What works best in Steps is Hirschfield’s almost documentary-like visual approach to life on Santorini capturing the hard scrabble lifestyle of the locals and their dependence on donkeys for transporting goods from the port up to the hilltop town via some 600 punishing steps. Scenes of the local men (most of them non-actors) drinking ouzo, dancing in the tavern and smashing dishes has an almost ethnographic feel as if we are witnessing some secret social ritual. And the rustic folk music score by Oscar-winning composer Manos Hatzidakis (Never on Sunday, Topkapi), which is almost wall-to-wall instrumentals, enhances the film’s authentic atmosphere.

STEPS (1966), based on the novel Joanna and Ulysses by May Sarton, offers a showcase role of Greek actress Irene Papas.

Of course, Irene Papas as Joanna is the glue that holds everything together and she is never less than mesmerizing in her intensity and dark beauty. Yet she also remains something of a cipher since we never really understand what she is chasing or trying to achieve. Is it a need to exorcise the past or end a combative marriage? Joanna is certainly not blameless in her interactions with Roberto and her black moods and nightmares about the war years would test anyone’s patience. At one point Roberto tries to reason with her saying, “You live with the dead. You talk with the dead. Dream of the dead. Look, Joana, my family was killed too but they don’t sleep in our bed.”

Italian actor Umberto Orsini plays Roberto, the frustrated husband of Joanna (Irene Papas) in the 1966 film STEPS.

What is ironic about the film adaptation of Sarton’s Joanna and Ulysses is that men were not the focus of the story or even an important part of it while Steps has Joanna torn between two very different yet similar macho men. At the time Sarton wrote her novel in 1963 she was no longer involved in romantic heterosexual relationships and had basically come out as a gay woman as early as 1945 when she met Judith Matlack in Sante Fe. They were together for thirteen years, even though Sarton never referred to herself as “lesbian” and disliked applying labels like that to herself or her writings. One has to wonder what she would have thought of Steps or even if she saw it (she died in 1995).

A photo of May Sarton in the early stages of her writing career.

In fact, very few people had the opportunity to see Steps. I can find no record of an official opening date in the U.S. or in Europe. I had never heard of the film until I saw a listing for it on the Cave of Forgotten Films website where you still might be able to stream it. The print was watchable but the color had faded so badly that it almost looked like a black and white film. But I would love to see a restored or remastered version of it someday for the reasons I previously stated.

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