"Eleni" is based on reportage by former New York Times reporter Nicholas Gage, and it retains some of the power of that original, confessional story: Gage's mother was killed by communists during the Greek civil war, and he returns to find her (now aged) executioners. But if the director and writers haven't been able to stamp out every vestige of life and pathos in "Eleni," it's not for lack of trying. In the hands of director Peter Yates, the movie is overemphatic and overheated, a lament played on a kettledrum.
The movie cuts back and forth between the past and the journalist's quest to uncover it. Gage (John Malkovich) is transferred by The Times to its Athens bureau, where, armed with both tape recorder and pistol, he begins his search for the killers. In flashback, meanwhile, his mother Eleni (Kate Nelligan), whose husband has already emigrated to America, struggles to keep her family together in the face of bullets, mortars and, mostly, ideology.
There's little tension in the flashback sequences, partly because they're only there to make Eleni into a martyr, partly because she's not really a martyr for anything. As the monarchists and the rebels fire away, Eleni is deliberately nonaligned; in a land of causes, she's a kind of martyr for causelessness. And a martyr for her children. As the firing squad's shells click into their chambers, Eleni raises her fists, and her cry "My children!" echoes with the report, a cry that's repeated, muted and wistfully, by Gage in the movie's coda.
There's genuine anguish in a mother's separation from her children, and Nelligan is never better than when she's expressing it -- a groan comes out of her that sounds like metal tearing in a tunnel. But Yates is too busy making her a saint to strike any human chords. And subtlety is lost on him -- he seems to have gotten his idea of directing from William (The Refrigerator) Perry. The movie is full of tight close-ups, bellowing, hissed stage whispers and windy speeches (contributed hackfully by screen writer Steve Tesich) delivered directly to the camera. The movie's all exclamation points.
The contemporary story fares somewhat better -- there's more energy in it, and the theme of a man trying to come to terms with his past connects with something mythic. But Malkovich is all wrong as Gage. Diffident, slow and low-key, part of Malkovich's magic is the way he always seems out of focus. Here, his diffuse, withdrawn approach is completely at odds with Yates' bludgeon tactics; and what such a personality has to do with reporting, a notoriously aggressive profession, is anyone's guess. As a man of facts, they've cast an actor of mystery.
Eleni, opening today at area theaters, is rated PG and contains violence.