Drama - Completed 2012

God Loves Caviar is based on the true story of Greek pirate turned businessman Ionnis Varvakis, who made his fortune selling caviar in Russia. Varvakis strives all his life for freedom for himself and then for his country, only to find that freedom cannot be won until it is shared.

& Awards

Toronto - TIFF 2012
Contemporary World Cinema
    • Year of production
    • 2012
    • Genres
    • Drama
    • Countries
    • GREECE
    • Languages
    • Budget
    • 10 - 25 M$
    • Duration
    • 99 mn
    • Director(s)
    • Iannis SMARAGDIS
    • Writer(s)
    • Jackie PAVLENKO, Panayotis PASCHIDIS, Iannis SMARAGDIS, Vladimir VALUTSKY
    • EIDR
    • 10.5240/4CC5-5681-4FBA-E398-0ABF-G
    • Producer(s)
    • Synopsis
    • We join IOANNIS VARVAKIS at the end of his life, when as a peaceful and mysterious figure, he is brought to be imprisoned in a sanatorium run by the British. As gossip about his identity and the truth of his story flies, we are taken back into his past by two narrators, with very different stories to tell.
      The first is his loyal Russian confidant, IVAN, who has followed Varvakis here without his knowledge. He spins a tale of magic and thrills, starring the talented, passionate and flawed Varvakis: from outside the sanatorium he mesmerises a group of local children peering at the captive through the bars of his prison.
      The second narrator is LEFENTARIOS, a Greek political operator, whose aim is to persuade the reluctant British governor of the sanatorium that Varvakis should be detained there. He presents Varvakis as a self-interested, dangerous figure who must be imprisoned for the good of Greece and Britain's interests.
      Who is this Varvakis? Will he end up being imprisoned in the sanatorium, or set free? What is the truth of his story: is he a hero or a villain? And what makes a real hero?
      Going back into the past, we find Varvakis as a young man in his twenties, who above all prizes his freedom. To him this means captaining a pirate boat out on the sea, where he is his own master and a respected leader. Charismatic but impulsive and irresponsible, he neglects his wife and new baby, hurrying straight to see his beloved new boat instead when he lands.
      Lefentarios at this time is working for the Russians. When he brings an invitation to Varvakis to fight the Turkish occupiers of Greece alongside the top class Russian fleet, Varvakis can't resist the call of adventure. In a typically brave, grand and cunning gesture he makes a firebomb of his precious new ship, perilously captaining it into the midst of the Turkish boats and devastating them.
      The Russians reward him, but now he is wanted by the Turks, and forced to go on the run. The freedom-loving pirate finds himself plunged into his worst nightmare when he is imprisoned in a Turkish gaol. It is a critical moment for Varvakis, who resolves to change the direction of his life. He must become powerful himself and build his own freedom, avoiding becoming dependent on any one master to give it to him. He must be strong and unassailable, and never be imprisoned again.
      In the present at the sanatorium, Lefentarios tells the governor that Varvakis escaped from gaol when his friends the Russians bribed the Turks to free him. Then they smuggled him to Russia, thus turning him into their grateful servant.
      Meanwhile, Ivan tells the children that Varvakis made a daring, heroic escape from prison. Then he followed it by walking all the way to St Petersburg, to reclaim the debt of gratitude the Russians owed him for the sacrifice of his ship.
      Which is the true version? It's a mystery. The story continues.
      Gaining an audience with CATHERINE THE GREAT, Varvakis asks for his reward. He is granted fishing rights in the Caspian Sea, along with a mission to map the area for Russian interests. The illiterate pirate claims he knows nothing of maps, since he just feels the sea. But if he finds out anything worth knowing, then he might just pass it on. Cultured Catherine warms to this proud and plain speaking man.
      Varvakis bases himself in Astrakhan and his fishing business flourishes. At home with all races and classes, he is a friend of all and a servant of none. Among his friends is KIMON, a teacher with unorthodox ideas. He and Varvakis enjoy life, basing their “office” in the local brothel, where they hear all the gossip; knowledge is power. Varvakis runs spies and forges alliances among Russians, Persians and even with Turks. His aim is to stay independent, maintaining business and political contacts without becoming too involved with any one side.
      But he refuses to make money from other people's captivity, avoiding using slaves as others do. His principles lead to him meeting Ivan, whom he buys to rescue from a violent owner. Wilful and decisive, Ivan refuses to take his freedom when it is offered. Varvakis likes his humorous and very Russian way of cutting straight to the point, and the two team up. Meanwhile, Varvakis donates money to charity both in Russia and in Greece and sends money home, but refuses to accept any credit for doing so.
      In the present outside the sanatorium, Ivan tells the children that Varvakis was in fact a good and generous man, taking care of others whenever he could. Meanwhile, Lefentarios tells the governor that what Varvakis really cared about was piling up money for his personal gain. What's more, he never spared a thought for Greece, still occupied and suffering while he was living a life of luxury.
      Back in the past, we find Varvakis surprised by some new arrivals. His MOTHER and daughter MARIA, now grown up and with her own husband and baby, have come to Russia. He does all he can to atone for what he sees as his prior neglect, building a luxurious home and buying Maria everything she wants. She helps him in his various businesses, much more ruthless than Varvakis could ever be.
      However, Varvakis confides to Ivan that he can't shake a growing sense of dissatisfaction with his life. He's rich and powerful, master of his own fate. He has got what he wanted, but it doesn't make him happy. Is this freedom? He doesn't know, and neither does Ivan.
      Lefentarios now visits Varvakis, telling him that he knows the root of his discontent. Lefentarios himself is now working for the Turks, but also secretly scheming for Greek independence. Varvakis, according to Lefentarios, needs a cause. He should be fighting for freedom for his country. Sending money and sponsoring various independence movements is good. But Varvakis is a leader, Lefentarios tells him; so he should lead. But Varvakis refuses, saying that Lefentarios only wants a willing puppet, of which he would pull the strings. They part on bad terms.
      Outside the sanatorium, Ivan tells the children that Varvakis couldn't stop being sad, so he asked the sea for a present to cheer him up. And the sea smiled, and gave him one.
      Back in the past, we see Varvakis and Ivan meet an old FISHERMAN on the Caspian sea, who introduces them to caviar. With just one taste of this wonderful delicacy, Varvakis is transformed. Suddenly he knows what to do, and a new chapter of his life opens up.
      Varvakis takes the caviar to Catherine the Great's court, and delights in the effect its delicious taste has on everyone who tries it. Once he has won even the sceptical Catherine over with this miraculous gift of the sea, he announces he has a proposal. He has developed a new technique of packing the caviar in special wood. In payment for the maps and intelligence he has supplied, not to mention the military potential of his adaptable fishing fleet which can be turned into fighting ships and troop carriers, he wants exclusive rights to sell the caviar all over Europe. Catherine is surprised and impressed by his nerve. She agrees.
      In the present, Lefentarios of course interprets this as Varvakis only caring about money and wanting to make a killing. But Ivan explains a more subtle interpretation to the children. According to him, Varvakis wanted to make people happy. He saw he could do that with caviar. And he wanted to be the only one with this power. So now, Ivan continues, almost to himself, the problems really started. Because you can't make people happy; they can only be happy themselves.
      Back in the past, Varvakis becomes richer and richer, and Maria is delighted. He is more powerful and respected than ever, founding schools, hospitals and churches from his wealth. But still people are not satisfied, always asking him for more. Peace of mind eludes him. Ivan worries that he is becoming obsessive and almost unstable in his quest for the impossible.
      Will love restore happiness to him? He falls for Helena, a young Russian beauty, and stops at nothing to woo her. Using all his leadership and force of character, he completes an enormous project to drain the marshes and redirect the canals. Refusing to stop there, he also builds a large private park for her to walk in, for the good of her failing health. She finally agrees to marry him, but there is no real love between them. He catches her having an affair with his friend Kimon, and is forced to admit that he was wrong to have coerced her into accepting him. She leaves, but he keeps their son.
      Meanwhile, the Russians are talking of military action against the Persians. Maria is horrified, since the Varvakis businesses trade with the Persians, but Varvakis himself becomes energised once again. With Ivan's help he personally leads an attack at sea, despite his age. He revels in the chance to play the pirate again. Ivan can't help but be swept along with his enthusiasm, while trying to keep Varvakis from too much danger.
      Lefentarios visits Varvakis again, trying to recruit him to the cause of Greek rebellion, and this time his approach has the whiff of a threat. Varvakis must come in with him, or risk being considered an enemy. But the deal he is offering, which would involve other foreign powers gaining influence over Greece, is unattractive to Varvakis. He refuses, saying if he is going to free Greece, he will do it his own way.
      In the present, Lefentarios tells the governor that he knew he would have to act against Varvakis soon. He was becoming a more and more dangerous megalomaniac. A rich and powerful man, he was turning into a loose cannon who could damage the delicate political interests Lefentarios was serving.
      Ivan tells the children that by now Varvakis's son Andreas was turning into a fine young man. He could fight, he was quick, he was brave as a lion. But even as we hear these words, we can see that Ivan's memories tell him a different story.
      Varvakis in fact drives Andreas relentlessly, setting impossibly high standards, despite Ivan's protests. As Andreas matures, things only get worse. Varvakis obsessively plans his own revolution against the Turks, to be co-ordinated with a promised forthcoming Russian action, for which he has also been preparing. He is determined Andreas will lead this revolution. He diverts more and more of his money into military preparations, to Maria's dismay.
      Then bad news comes: the Russians will not attack after all. Varvakis is left stranded, and with massive financial losses. Maria and even Ivan advise him not to pursue his dreams of Greek rebellion, but the setback seems to make him more determined than ever.
      Andreas is drinking heavily, unable to take the pressure his father puts on him, and uninterested in fighting for any cause. They argue bitterly, and Andreas blunders off across the deck of the ship Varvakis has bought for him. He stumbles in the dark, falls into the sea and is drowned.
      It is a terrible blow for Varvakis, who accuses himself of virtually killing his own son. At a gala performance during which he is honoured for his services to Greece, he breaks down in tears. His despair grows until he wades into the sea one night, seemingly bent on self destruction. But when he plunges under water, he is distracted by what look like precious jewels, gleaming on the sea bed. He scoops up one, then another and another, until he has collected a handful. In this simple activity, the moment of crisis passes. He comes to the surface as dawn breaks, and in his hand, there are only a few pebbles. He laughs to himself; he has found new peace, and the sea has saved him.
      And now, Varvakis starts to give everything away. He gives the trading licence for caviar to the other merchants in the Caspian. He gives Maria his house and the businesses. There is a moving moment of connection between them, where the buried love they have for each other comes to the surface. He tells her that he's going home.
      Ivan and Varvakis sail back to Greece. Varvakis intends to really give everything away. He will even give himself, offering himself to the service of his country.
      But when they get to Greece, Ivan is disappointed. It seems to him that the place he's heard about for so many years was the fantasy of an old man. Instead, they find hunger, devastation and squabbling over who should have power. Honourable figures and true defenders of Greece are sidelined and people jockey for position.
      Varvakis is invited by the temporary Greek government who claim they want to honour him now that he's back. He knows there may be more to this than meets the eye, but goes anyway. Lefentarios is there, and the atmosphere changes quickly to one of a trial rather than a tribute. Varvakis is accused of leading a Russian backed plot to hand power in Greece to them. He counters that they want to hand their country over to the British and others, is that any better? His eloquence about real, honourable values, and the need to shift our perspective from our narrow, selfish concerns to a more communal, shared approach, from 'I' to 'we', has great impact.
      Having heard the story from Lefentarios's point of view, the governor agrees that Varvakis should be detained. He does indeed seem a threat to British interests. We feel that Lefentarios really admires Varvakis, but represses this in favour of political expediency.
      Meanwhile, the children protest to Ivan that Varvakis should not be in prison. They are outraged that this glamorous pirate, this hero, should be kept shut up. Ivan tells them there's nothing to be done about it, and that all he wants is to visit Varvakis to say goodbye and give him his present – what's left of the caviar the children have been eating. But the children insist that they don't want a sad ending. The story can't end like this.
      That night, Ivan is led by some of the older children through secret passages that the locals know about, into the basement of the sanatorium. Once there, he gets into the room where Varvakis is being held.
      Varvakis is thrilled to see his old friend: now he can die happy. Who said anything about dying? But Ivan knows Varvakis is very ill. They escape.
      As dawn breaks, Ivan leads Varvakis to the shore, where he gets hold of a small boat. The two men put out onto the water, with Ivan rowing for his friend and former master. Varvakis is finally at peace, and as he takes his last taste of caviar, he passes away with dignity and tranquillity, finally free again, out on the open sea.
    • Beginning of shooting
    • May 01, 2011