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The Life of Greek Movie Star and Activist Tzeni Karezi

tzeni karezi
Tzeni Karezi. Credit: Public Domain

Greek actress Tzeni Karezi was one of the most prolific actresses of the “Golden Age” of Greek cinema, which lasted from the 1950s until the late 1960s.

Karezi was not just an incredibly talented actress on stage and on camera but also a dedicated activist for a wide variety of issues up until the end of her life.

Born Evgenia Karpouzi (whose last name means “watermelon” in Greek) in Athens, Greece in 1934, Karezi showed promise as an actress even at a very young age.

Her father, Konstantinos Karpouzis, was an accomplished mathematician, and her mother, Theoni Karpouzi, was a school teacher.

Her parents supported Karezi’s education and training as an actress, and she was sent to a private French school run by the Sisters of St. Joseph in Thessaloniki and later on to Athens, where she learned the language fluently.

Upon completing her studies in 1951, Karezi was accepted into the drama school of the Greek National Theater.

Tzeni Karezi’s early work

It was in Athens that Karzei studied under some of the biggest names in Greek theater and cinema at the time, including playwright Angelos Terzakis and director Dimitris Rontiris.

The budding star found work in the theater almost immediately upon graduating in 1954. Theatergoers and directors alike were charmed by Karezi’s coquettish yet fierce quality as an actress.

Karezi landed her first role in a major theatrical play called La Belle Helene alongside actress Melina Mercouri just a few months after completing her studies.

The following year, Karezi made her film debut in the comedy Laterna, Ftohia, kai Filotimo,  by director Alekos Sakellarios, as a young woman who ran away from home to avoid an arranged marriage. The movie was a massive hit, and it, along with its 1957 sequel Laterna, Ftohia, kai Garyfallo, made the young actress a star.

Karezi also recorded the song “Min Ton Rotas Ton Ourano” (‘Don’t Ask the Sky’) in 1959, written by Greek composer Manos Hadjidakis, as part of the soundtrack of the film The Island of the Brave, which became one of the most beloved songs in all of Greek music.

Tzeni Karezi and the “Golden Age” of Greek cinema

Although she made a name for herself as an actress in the 1950s, Karezi’s career blossomed in the 1960s.

During that era, Karezi starred in some of the most important films in Greek cinema, such as Lola and Tzeni Tzeni, and even started her own theater troupe.

Her most internationally acclaimed film was Ta Kokkina Fanaria, or The Red Lanterns, which was nominated for an Academy Award for the Best Foreign Language Film.

After a two-year marriage to journalist Zahos Hadjifotiou in the early sixties, Karezi met Greek actor, director, and politician Kostas Kazakos while they were filming a movie together.

The couple quickly fell in love and married in 1968, just one year after the Greek Junta, or right-wing military dictatorship, took power in Greece. Karezi and Kazakos had one son, Konstantinos Kazakos, her only child.

The couple took a stance against the Junta at a time when actors, politicians, and artists who expressed leftist political beliefs or created artwork that went against the extremely socially conservative dogma of the dictatorship could be exiled, tortured, or worse.

Karezi and her husband were imprisoned in 1973, just one year before the fall of the junta, after putting on a play called Our Giant Circus, which satirized the dictatorship.

From 1955 until 1972, Karezi starred in 32 films, making her one of the most prolific actresses of the time. Many consider this time period to be the pinnacle of Greek cinema.

After her final film appearance in a cinematic interpretation of Aristophanes’ play Lysistrata in 1972, Karezi focused on theater.

Her final days and activism

Karezi continued to act on stage, starring in classics such as Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Medea, until 1990, when she was diagnosed with terminal breast cancer.

In much too much pain to continue acting, Karezi retired and spent the last years of her life with her family. Tragically, the star died of cancer, which had metastasized across her body, at the age of just 58 in 1992.

In the final years of her life, Karezi advocated for increased awareness and practice of palliative care in Greece.

Palliative care is a holistic approach to improving the quality of life, through medical, psychological, and spiritual treatment, of those with terminal and complex illnesses, who are often, but not exclusively, nearing the end of life.

Karezi advocated for those in a similar position in Greece to live out their last days with dignity. Shortly after her death, the Jenny Karezi Foundation was founded in her memory.

Her foundation offers palliative care support to those with terminal cancer and other complex and life-threatening diseases.

This stunning, lovely Greek actress remains one of the most beloved film stars in Greece for her beauty, charm, and undeniable talent.

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