The plot of the film Mediterraneo, which is set during WWII, involves a small group of Italian soldiers sent to an isolated Greek island in the Aegean for a few months. There, far from the front and in a setting filled with landscapes whose beauty could only be rivaled by that of the local women, the soldiers experience the island’s slow pace, with touching simplicity and in complete harmony with the locals, creating memories that would make them return, many years later.
Mediterraneo is much more than a film. It is an ode to peace, friendship and love. It is also a hymn to the film’s real protagonist; the island that stole everyone’s heart – Kastellorizo.
“I owe much to beautiful Kastellorizo,” says Vana Barba. “I owe it all of my existence, for bestowing on Mediterraneo and on everyone who worked on this project the Academy Award for Best International Feature Film, and for making my country famous internationally.
“I remember being at the Oscars ceremony and looking around to see famous actors and actresses enchanted by what they saw on screen – the crystalline waters and pure beauty of the island. If Mediterraneo made it all the way to the Oscars, it was because of the energy of this exceptionally beautiful island, because of its inhabitants who welcomed us with open arms, and because of the unique person and director of the film, Gabriele Salvatores.”
Barba sits opposite me, just as imposing and flowing in her expressions as Vasilissa, the young heroine she portrayed in the film. She tears up as she recounts the story of her return to Kastellorizo, the island that shaped her life and career.
“I had not visited Kastellorizo in over 20 years, since I had first been there to make the film. I went back in 2018 on the occasion of a concert we organized there with Stavros Xarchakos, and I remember the scene as we approached the island as if it were happening now – I remember it and it gives me goosebumps. A small boat adorned with a Greek flag, the island’s inhabitants expecting us at the port, and the end of the film, when one of the heroes returns to the island.
“As soon as I stepped foot on the island again, I burst into tears. I went to see if the house I stayed in still exists, Casa Azzurra, and the lady who owns it recognized me and invited me in. It was so beautifully preserved. I sat on the steps outside, where I sat in the movie, and cried like a young child, flooded by memories. We ended up drinking ouzo with the locals and, to bring the day to a close, I jumped into the harbor with my clothes on, feeling a sense of redemption as I returned to those pristine waters.”
At a small reunion at a cinema event in Milan in the summer of 2019, Diego Abatantuono, who played the role of the soldier Lorusso, stated that they had visited many islands before finding the ideal setting for the film.
“Many times cinema can deceive: with the correct angles, framing and editing, things can be made to look beautiful, even when they aren’t. There, on Kastellorizo, there was nothing to adjust. There was just one street lined with colorful houses, the only bar on the island called Meltemi, which we would visit all the time and sing and dance, and the most amazing waters in which I wanted to swim after every shoot. It was an extraordinary place and, while I never imagined we’d make it to the Oscars, I knew that, because of the island and its atmosphere, we had created a very special film.”
For director Salvatores, Mediterraneo is like a child that has grown up, and it is only when you see them again after a long time that you realize how much time has passed.
“I remember playing tennis in the harbor, soccer on the dirt runway, doing yoga in the village square. I remember an actor telling me, ‘I’m happy here. When it’s hot, I just take a dip in these waters. When it is hot in the Cinecittà film studio, what can I do – take a dip in the asphalt?’ Imagine an island that’s almost deserted, with few inhabitants, and 30 crazy people who, in reality, were living a fairytale. I really want us all to return to Kastellorizo together, and open a bottle of wine, like the characters at the end of the film,” he stated at the reunion last year.
Barba tells me that she recently spoke with Abatantuono and he greeted her with a “Ciao, bella!” just like he would every day during filming, because for Italians she is still the beautiful Vasilissa.
“The Italian Cultural Institute in Athens has been trying to organize a reunion in Kastellorizo for all the people involved in the making of the film, planned for 25 March 2021,” she tells me.
“It is a dream that I want to see come true. This whole adventure with Mediterraneo began for me by chance, and I ended up spending the two most beautiful months of my life there. The director just happened to run into me at the airport, while he was looking for a girl who looked like me to play the role of a Greek girl in the film, and he asked me to take part. I had just won the Miss Greece title, and I had started working on films with Nikos Perakis, so I accepted. He bought me an airplane ticket and, as soon as I arrived on the island, I fell in love.
“The entire island was itself a film set. From the first moment, the entire village worked with us and we all became one. I’ll never forget that feeling. The Italian production was well organized and offered us meals, but the old ladies of the village would bake pies for us, so nobody really ate the catered food. At night, we would all go to Meltemi for drinks and, when it was hard to wake up in the morning, the director would give us the day off and instead of shooting, he would take us to the olive grove or to the beach on boats, and he would have us bask in the sun and do yoga.
“That was the energy: calm, beauty and respect. After each scene, we’d applaud and dive into the sea, the locals following suit; or we’d all admire the twilight, and an erotic atmosphere filled the air, everywhere. We were all in love with each other!
“And so, through these people and this island, I learned that what truly matters is energy – not money, or attention. Greeks, Italians, and the Turks who had come from Kaş across the way to work as extras, we all lived in harmony. People don’t have issues between them, they can live like this. And art brings people together.”
Throughout our conversation, Barba repeats how much she owes the island and discusses her future plans, since she feels that she has much still to give to the island, and that it’s something she must do.
“We’re organizing a concert with composer Stamatis Kraounakis and I really want to recite the ‘Lady of Ro’ – to tell her story, visit her island, to feel and smell it. I will return to Kastellorizo, and I know it will be a moving experience for me once again.
“As soon as you arrive, there’s an old man with a small transistor radio who invites you to join him and drink a glass of ouzo as he plays songs by Kazantzidis. I want to go and sit with him at the taverna every day, and I also want to go to the taverna Platania again. Last time I was in Kastellorizo, I said I’d like to return and open a taverna and call it ‘Vasilissa.’ Maybe, in the end, that’s what I want out of my life; I may do just that.”