Once You Notice This About Mamma Mia, You Can't Unsee It

In one of the most memorable scenes of 2008’s Mamma Mia, Donna Sheridan (Meryl Streep), the free-spirited American innkeeper, prances around the fictional Greek island of Kalokairi singing ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” and liberating hordes of traditionally-dressed Greek women from their men and their chores. Donna is the pied piper of empowerment. Over the course of the song’s four-minute duration, she amasses a group of locals, from grandmas with scarves on their heads to moony-eyed girls with pigtails that work at the hotel, to dance with her on the pier.
The song “Dancing Queen” also happens to contain the most significant line a Greek person actually speaks in Mamma Mia. At one point in the number, Donna and her trail of sirens pass an old woman on the side of the road. Hearing the coos of “Dancing Queen,” the woman pushes the bale of sticks from her back and sings, “Oh yeah” triumphantly, along with the song. According to the scene, yiayia — the Greek word for grandma – has seen the light, and it’s all thanks to Donna’s golden hair, booming voice, and fun-loving nature.
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In this scene, Donna attempts to pass on the awakening she experienced years earlier the first time she stepped foot on the island of Kalokairi (a fictional island whose name translates to “summer” in Greek). Donna reminds me of the two American 22-year-olds who decided to found an indie bookstore on the island of Santorini while on holiday there. After realising that "not ever leaving Greece" was a viable option, these real and fictional Americans seized their chance to carve out their very own space of Aegean quaintness (frankly, I get the impulse).
Mamma Mia follows a long historical tradition of representing Greece as a place for foreigners to find themselves. Donna, like Lord Byron, Leonard Cohen, the itinerant college student in The Magus, and my 21-year-old self before her, is a pilgrim to the healing powers of Greece’s stark white buildings and sparkling “wine dark sea.” In Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, the sequel to Mamma Mia, we’ll see not only how Donna fell for her three suitors — but how she fell for Greece, too.
Though the word “Greece” is only mentioned once in the movie (really!), the setting is essential. Those sweeping vistas and winding, hilly paths are a shortcut to all that a Greek island represents in the Western imagination: Enchanted volcanic rocks capable of prolonging people’s lifespans through slow, sun-soaked living and a tomato-filled diet. According to The Telegraph, when Meryl Streep filmed the first movie in 2008, she pressed her palms onto a stone rock and encouraged her colleagues to “feel the force.” Mamma Mia channels that "force," the almost mystical feeling that comes from standing on islands that have been the focus of literature and imagination since ancient times.
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In Mamma Mia, Greece is the setting — and the “charming natives” just part of the set decor, along with pine forests and blue sea. The movie’s Greek characters are silent and seemingly stuck in time. Mamma Mia hilariously clothes them in a kind of "friendly villager" garb, as if the wardrobe of the Greek population hadn’t progressed since the ‘60s. While older widows in Greece do frequently wear all black, the rest of the locals’ clothes are unrealistically antiquated. It's as if depicting real Greeks, who wear modern clothes and speak English, would take away from the illusion of this fairytale Greece designed to cement Donna's dream life.
Mamma Mia is a movie interested in the myth of Greece, not in Greeks. In the movie, the “charming locals” communicate with Donna & Co. mostly through emphatic hand gestures and expressions of either shock or joy. Given the lack of verbal communication, the relationship between the locals and the Sheridans remains decidedly opaque. After decades on the island, do Donna and Sophie even speak Greek? Did Sophie go to school on the island, or was she homeschooled to the songs of ABBA? Will Donna ever pay back those vendors who trail her, waving receipts, in “Money Money Money?” Will Donna ever acknowledge the women toiling away in the kitchen with a "thank you?" How about a nod?
What I would give for one – one! — subtitled exchange between two of Donna’s employees about the events of Mamma Mia. After decades of watching Donna trample around Kalokairi, surely her employees have constructed a lively ecosystem of gossip and opinion about her life. Donna is probably the best TV show on the island. With one sentence of Greek, Mamma Mia could’ve acknowledged that, simultaneous to the movie’s action, the locals carried out lives of their own. Instead, they remain decorations of Donna’s story.
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Still, despite its strange depiction of Greek locals, Mamma Mia did some undeniable good for the Greece, a country that relies on tourism to fuel its economy. After Mamma Mia, the once sleepy island of Skopelos, nestled in the relatively hard-to-reach Sporades, was swarmed by tourists inspired go on Donna-esque journeys of enlightenment of their own. Skopelos’ has since been branded the “Mamma Mia Island;” the hotel where the cast stayed calls itself the Mamma Mia hotel. The company Dolphin Tours began daily Mamma Mia jaunts that shepherd tourists to the movie’s most iconic spots, including the chapel at the top of a steep hill.
In the ultimate — and, given the movie’s treatment of Greek characters, fitting — irony, the Mamma Mia franchise found a way to disappoint the island’s actual Greek islanders. The sequel Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again swapped out the island of Skopelos, where the first movie was filmed, for the nearly identical pine forests and aquamarine sea of the Croatian island of Vis.
Essentially, so long as the symbols that represent Greece are preserved, the actual movie location didn’t matter. Authenticity couldn’t compete with Croatia’s generous tax breaks — and the Greeks are bummed. "It was most disappointing for us that filming didn’t take place here,” Mayor Christos Vasiloudis told The Mirror in a recent interview. “We were very sad. When the second part of a drama takes place it should surely be in the same place.” This is the same mayor who, in 2008, proudly told The Telegraph “the world will see Skopelos now.”
Unfortunately, the line "here we go again," culled from the song "Mamma Mia" will not apply to the island of Skopelos and a major Hollywood production. Since the island won't have a starring role in Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, I hope at least some local characters will.
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