In the 1991 film Mediterraneo, a group of Italian soldiers are stranded on a Greek island during World War II. With the island's native male population engaged in war duty elsewhere, a Greek Orthodox priest invites one of the Italians to restore the fading murals of the local church. When the job is complete, a slow pan across the church walls reveals that where the faces of Greek saints and historical figures once appeared, the likenesses of the Italian artist and his military buddies now stare out at the congregation.
Within the film, this defacement-or perhaps "refacement"-of the church iconography is presented as a comic moment. Yet, for Greeks, this scene has a certain resonance, a historical parallel that may drain the filmic moment of its humor. The refacement of the church is not only reminiscent of actual damage done to historically significant architectural monuments but of Greece's larger, contested relationship to its own history. To Americans, a people prone to defining themselves primarily according to their modernity and assumed superpower status, rather than in terms borrowed from their relatively short history, the Greek dilemma may be perplexing. This article attempts to provide a window into Greece's unique cultural situation while exemplifying the growing need to understand the political implications of national culture and internationally circulated images, such as those offered through cinema.
A significant part of Greece's history as a civilization is physically rooted in land east of the Aegean Sea, land now claimed by Turkey. Through the course of various hostilities and territorial disputes between the two nations, Turkey has often attempted to erase Greece's historical ties to the monuments and relics that stand on these eastern lands. For instance, when Greek Orthodox churches on Turkish land have not been destroyed, Turks have systematically chipped off portions of the frescoes, leaving white plaster in place of the faces of Greek religious figures.1
The effacement of history, whether on Greece's eastern or western front, takes on significance in light of current literature suggesting that nations should be viewed as "imagined communities" and national identity as process, as a construction that is constantly in flux and readjusted to meet certain political and economic needs (Anderson 6). Historical narratives presumably shape Greece's own vision of itself but also inflect the idyllic touristic vision of Greece cultivated by various nations and the image of Greece as a historical mirror that has propelled a long line of Westerners into Greek territory.
These images sometimes overlap and complement one another, while at other times they collide with each other and with the constructed historical narratives of other nations. For instance, for most of the Western world, ancient Greece is a simple matter of shared heritage-a golden moment in Europe's collective past that provides a convenient historical justification for the constructs of "Europe" and "Western." In fact, various Western nations' interests in preserving Greece's classical treasures have often overshadowed Greece's own relationship to its past. For Hellenes, the supposed descendants of the long-lost race and of ancient Greeks, the legacy of classical Greece serves a complex function.
Greece's insistence on continuity between its ancient ancestors and its modern citizens warrants the nation's membership in the European clique at the same time that it provides a means of defining cultural specificity apart from the rest of Europe. More important, this tie to the classical past has served as a raison d'etre for the nation-state, dating back to its use as the theoretical justification for breaking free from Ottoman rule.
Today, links with the past continue to take on political implications, thus carrying struggles over national identity into the realm of semantics, symbols, and artifacts. …