In 1948, Greece is embroiled in a civil war between supporters of the King and Communists who wanted to create a new social and political order. Eleni lives with her nine-year-old son Nikola and her four daughters in Lia, a poor mountain village. Her husband has gone to America where he hopes to earn enough money to bring the family overseas.

When the Communists forces take over the village, most of the able bodied men flee and join the monarch's army. The invaders who have come to "liberate Greece" commandeer Eleni's house as their headquarters. She and her children move in with her mother. Guards watch the exits from Lia, and mines are placed in the fields.

When the guerrillas want to make Eleni's oldest daughter a soldier, she sears the girl's leg with a glowing poker so she won't have to serve. Another daughter is taken instead. Then, with food supplies dwindling, the Communist leader — Katis — proposes that all children between the ages of 3 and 14 be sent to Albania and Czechoslovakia where they can be instructed in Communist doctrine. This tactic is designed to clear the village of useless dependents and to test the loyalty of the citizens. When Katina, a supporter of the guerrilla cause, protests this attempt to break up the community's families, she is tortured and executed.

Eleni, a traditional country woman who has been brought up all her life to obey and serve men, realizes that her children's lives are in danger, and she decides to act on their behalf. Eleni concocts a plan for their escape but is ordered by the guerrillas to join a work force the day of the breakout. After her children are safely out of Lia, she is tortured, tried, and executed along with several other villagers.

When Nikola — who has been in America since 1948 — turns 41 (his mother's age when she died), he vows to find those responsible for Eleni's murder. As a New York Times reporter, Nikola receives an assignment as bureau chief in Athens. Leaving his wife and family behind, he returns to Greece with a gun; his goal — to exact revenge upon his mother's murderer. Nikola meets up with a baker in Athens who grew up with him in Lia and obtains information about the man who led the prisoners to the execution site in 1948. More revelations take the reporter to Prague where he talks with the woman who testified against Eleni at her trial to save her own family. Finally, Nikola returns to Greece for the ultimate encounter with Katis, the Communist leader responsible for Eleni's death.

This powerful film, based on Nicholas Gage's best-selling 1983 book, graphically portrays how Greek Communists were willing to destroy families in order to bring their political ideals to fruition. Both the nonfiction work and Steve Tesich's screenplay reveal that zealots can make a travesty out of their crusade by betraying all their values that keep people civilized.

Kate Nelligan's performance as Eleni is a tour de force of dignity and strength under pressure. Her heroism — the willingness to lay down her own life to save her children — is presented with simple clarity and conviction. As Nikola, John Malkovich exudes a single-minded intensity and inner anguish. The film emphatically celebrates the bond between the boy and his mother — a tie made strong by the absence of his father. As a man, the hate he feels for Elen's killers burns away any emotional connection with his own wife and chilren.

In the end, Nikola regains his humanity by learning about Eleni's courage in the face of death and her unbounded devotion to him and his sisters. Love is the inheritance which frees him from the grip of the past and the role of the avenger. He is restored to his own family with a new appreciation of them.

Eleni is an extraordinary movie. Like The Official Story, it reminds us that political ideology — whether right-wing or leftists — that attempts to subordinate human life to its rigids demands is doomed.