Bright Lights Film Journal

Burning Down the House: The 52nd Thessaloniki International Film Festival (2011)

“It is within this vortex of social and political upheaval that Greek filmmakers have found some traction, creating sharp, insightful works that raise awareness while revealing unflattering truths about Greek society and the current ‘crisis.'”

These days it seems the only light gracing the Athenian sky is the golden flame of a Molotov cocktail. Demonstrations against the government's economic austerity measures are nearly a weekly — if not daily — occurrence, and the news headlines are no less raucous than the protestors in the streets, with "imminent financial collapse" the new mantra.

In such difficult times, art is eclipsed by necessity. Yet it is within this vortex of social and political upheaval that Greek filmmakers have found some traction, creating sharp, insightful works that raise awareness while revealing unflattering truths about Greek society and the current "crisis."

The Greek films screened at the 52nd Thessaloniki International Film Festival won't cure Greece's economic woes. Art can't fix anything; a film can only reflect back or portray what is happening from the director's point of view. But it is a starting point around which to set a debate. It's what people are willing to discuss, and that's the beginning of change.

One film that will surely have people talking is The Magic Hour (2011) by Costas Kapakas. In one of the funniest Greek films to come along in quite a while, The Magic Hour leaves no sacred cow unscathed as it follows the hapless duo of Diomidis (hysterically played by Renos Haralambidis) and Aristidis (Tasos Andoniou) on a Greek road trip with enough misadventures to rival that of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. From outrageous political corruption to racism and the amorality of public officials and citizens alike, Kapakas (who directed the popular Peppermint in 1999) employs gallows humor to peel back several layers of Greek society and in the process expose some fairly substantial rot.

As in most road films, the plot here is simple: Aristidis is driving aimlessly around Athens on the day he is both let go from his job and discovers his wife is having an affair. Exhausted and in shock, he stops at a motel and takes a room for the night. The front desk clerk, Diomidis, a wannabe filmmaker, moonlights as an undertaker and asks Aristidis to work the desk for him as he rushes off to a job. As it turns out, the motel is rated Triple-X, and the action starts when two guests, an out-of-town parliamentarian and a judge, run into trouble while energetically role-playing as a nun and Archimandrite. Aristidis's late-night call for an ambulance ignites a media frenzy. When Diomidis returns he realizes the potential fallout and ushers Aristidis into his car, a hearse that doubles as a storage space for his film props, complete with casket. The two take to the road, and the odyssey begins.

As the pair traipse through the Greek countryside, they meet an array of characters, including a self-righteous German couple, a Pakistani canteen owner who willingly takes the drachmas offered him because "Greece will be out of the Euro soon," a nasty gas station owner, and a kind-hearted old man who doesn't care for money. Amusing as the encounters are, behind the stock characterizations is the brutal acknowledgment that hypocrisy and abuse have enveloped Greek society. What heightens this tragedy is the absolute beauty of the Greek landscape. While everyone was scheming to fill their pockets, true wealth was under their feet and before their eyes the entire time.

Filippos Tsitos's deadpan comedy Unfair World (2011) is an altogether gloomier tale about humanity and the precarious nature of relationships. Bleak in palette and absurdist in dialogue, Unfair World borrows heavily from Aki Kaurismäki's hyperrealist style yet lacks the oddball charm that gives Kaurismäki's films a certain romanticism. Here, the relentless disconnect among the characters tilts toward a harsher, more solitary place.

Glum police investigator Sotiris (a disarming performance by Antonis Kafetzopoulos) is the ultimate underpaid bureaucrat: bored, fed up, and burned out. A parade of suspects enter his nondescript office daily, he listens to their stories, then casually flicks their case folders on top of his filing cabinet without uttering a word. And even this seems an effort. Then one day out of the blue he declares, "I don't want to be unfair," and leaves.

Convinced that a bar owner is being unjustly accused of a crime, Sotiris and his equally phlegmatic partner Minas (Christos Stergioglou) concoct a scheme to remedy the situation. The plan goes awry, and Sotiris ends up shooting a corrupt security guard, or as he puts it, "My finger didn't obey me." Bribe money goes missing, and Sotiris thinks the cynical cleaning lady, Dora (Theodora Tzimou), has found it; he's right, but she denies everything to the end.

There is a brief attempt by Sotiris to engage Dora in a romance, but both are too emotionally paralyzed to act. The only sign of possibility seems to be in the Styrofoam landscape dioramas that Sotiris builds. These self-constructed realities are prettier, malleable, and more hospitable than the real world, and are perhaps a truer match to the characters' desires. A metaphor for what is happening in Greece?

The film won Best Director and Best Actor awards at the San Sebastian Film Festival in September 2011.

In The City of Children (2011), written and directed by Giorgos Gikapeppas, Athens is a megalopolis on the edge of dystopia, its children at risk, and so too its very future. It is a vision so despairing of a people and a place that one leaves the theater wondering: Is there no way back for Greece?

Cross-cutting between four couples on a single day, the story revolves around their reactions to pregnancy. Two couples, a pair of young punks too immersed in fighting and fucking to seriously consider parenthood and a middle-aged twosome with a teenage son, an out-of-work husband, and a marital crisis, view the unexpected pregnancy as untenable. The men pressure the women to have abortions, and one goes through with the procedure only to regret it later. Another couple is struggling with infertility while the fourth is a pregnant Iraqi immigrant abandoned by her spouse. She is forced to give birth at home with the help of a lonely Greek neighbor who has been voyeuristically photographing her beautiful face. The film culminates in a violent incident that profoundly affects them all.

The hard, cold images of Athenian rooftops awash in satellite dishes and aerial antennas, darkened medical clinic interiors, dodgy street traffic, and lonely country roads are emblematic of the spiritual, and physical, sterility of the characters. Add to this a soundtrack of whispering radio reports on the economic crisis and the squeal of an occasional ambulance siren, and the overall mood evoked is grim. Love seems to have fled this city with no intention of returning.

The only sliver of hope in The City of Children is the birth of the immigrant woman's child. But what kind of a world has he been delivered into, and what, if any, future lies before him? Gikapeppas offers no solutions, but the questions he poses are desperately in need of answers.

The City of Children was awarded Best Greek film by the FIPRESCI Jury.

Notable mentions include J.A.C.E. (2011), by Menelaos Karamaghiolis, the story of an orphan who learns to survive in the brutal Athenian underworld, and Man at Sea (2011), by Constantine Giannaris, about the plight of refugees at sea and one man who tries to help.