Black Out (Menelaos Karamaghiolis)

16-25 April 2000,
Treasury Theatre, Melbourne

part of the Antipodes Festival
film festival curator:  Eleni Bertes

A Particular Perspective   by Vicky Tsaconas     |     Capsule Reviews    by Bill Mousoulis

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A Particular Perspective by Vicky Tsaconas

The four films I saw at this year’s Greek Film Festival varied in terms of style and subject matter, but one of the things they all have in common is that they deal with morality. Not the traditional kind of morality of what’s deemed by social institutions to be “right” and “wrong”, but the morality of choices and the consequences of those choices in contemporary life – in intimate relationships, at work and, more broadly, in society.

There are choices aplenty in Safe Sex (Thanassis Papathanasiou, 1999). So many that I started to wonder how safe (emotionally) sex really has become. It has been said that these days “everything is fluid”, that nothing can be defined easily anymore and that this has liberated us from oppressive notions such as sexual identity and gender. But has this “liberation” really freed us up or has it created confusion? Safe Sex , a satire constructed out of several intersecting and eventually intertwining narratives, shows up the absurd and baffling nature of relationships in this era of no boundaries. The many permutations and combinations depicted in the film include: extra-marital affairs; phone sex; gay relationships; heterosexual relationships; “open relationships”; older men and younger women; older women and younger men; partner-swapping; sex for sale – both hetero and gay; wives spying on unfaithful husbands; workplace relationships; playing out sexual fantasies; sexual “dysfunction”; tonnes of desire, requited and un. The dialogue, written by Michalis Reppas (one of Greece’s best sitcom writers), reminds me of the Greek comedies of the ’50s and ’60s. It is quick, sharp and very witty. The actors, mainly the older sitcom stars, are very good. The fast pace gets faster as the chaos snowballs and there are some nice touches, such as the send-up of Greek soaps and the pompous dinner party debate about “romantic love”. There are no answers, no ways out, just more potentially confusing possibilities and a hell of a lot of fun.

The Man in Grey (Pericles Hoursoglou, 1998) also deals with morality in relationships, but in a serious, somewhat muted way. I did not see the film during the Festival; rather, I saw it recently on SBS. What remained with me was my lack of empathy for the protagonist Leonidas (Yorgos Michalakopoulos), a jaded, middle class Athenian who, after retiring from thirty years as a public servant, has an affair with Christina (Irene Iglessi), a woman he meets during summer. While both Leonidas and Christina are married to other people, Leonidas seems to be the more concerned of the two about the impact of the affair. Generally, the characters are drawn in a clichéd way – the placid, accommodating wife (whose placidity transforms into anger when she finds out about her husband’s affair), the vibrant and therefore “more” attractive “other woman”, the angry daughter, etc. The film is marked by an unevenness between the “light” scenes (e.g. the ones in which the friendship between Leonidas, Christina and her husband develop over evening drinks and afternoon walks) and the leaden dramatic scenes (e.g. when Leonidas goes to Switzerland to find Christina).

The Canary Yellow Bicycle (Dimitris Stavrakas, 1999), a film based on a true story, considers a different kind of relationship and a different set of moral issues. The film revolves around the relationship between Aris, a primary school teacher who is transferred to an Athens school after a period teaching in rural Greece, and Lefteris, a pupil who behaves in a seemingly odd manner. When Aris realises that Lefteris is illiterate, he decides to help him, but is confronted by suspicion and hostility from his colleagues, apathy from Lefteris’s parents, negative attitudes from the other pupils and distrust from Lefteris. The film is a humanist exploration of individual responsibility in the context of Greece’s education system and child illiteracy. Hoursoglou handles Lefteris and his predicament with compassion and Aris with respect. While the acting is stiff in parts, particularly in the characters of Aris’ colleagues, the boy who plays Lefteris is wonderfully warm. Hoursoglou evokes the right amount of sympathy from him without sentimentalising the situation or the character and allows the other children, presumably non-professionals, to be themselves. The actor who plays Aris tries hard to give the character dimension so that his choices are seen to be real and not the expression of a set of overly idealised values.

Nikos Koundouros in his film The Photographers (1998) takes the issue of individual moral responsibility a step further by considering the individual’s responsibility to themselves. Koundouros has created a political allegory using Sophokles’ tragedy Antigone as the basis. The director transplants the ancient story to a generic Muslim country taken over by a mad fundamentalist, the Kreon character of the play. A group of journalists from the West (including, oddly, a Russian) arrive to record the events for the rest of the world to see. The only one in the group moved by the crucifixion of several accused traitors and the growing number of corpses is the woman photographer, Sarah (Katerina Pavlaki). These emotions and her curiosity bring her closer to the chorus of women grieving for their men and, eventually, to a young woman who tries to take her brother down from his cross so that she can bury him (echoing Antigone’s attempts in the play). It also leads her to meet an independent Greek photographer who, unlike the other media people, takes risks to record what he believes to be the “truth” and does not allow himself to buy into the dictator’s games. The theatrical aspects of the film, like the silent, veiled chorus, the photographer confronting herself and the young woman’s pronounced horror, work beautifully – they are its power. It is a shame that the rest of the film does not jell, because Sophokles’ play is a powerful exploration of the intrinsic value of following one’s beliefs regardless of the consequences. While the idea of “modernising” an ancient tragedy can work, in this case it doesn’t. I think this is primarily because the simplistic storyline of Muslim fundamentalists fighting the debauched capitalist West nullifies the play’s moral complexity.

These four films demonstrate some of the ways people deal with the ever-increasing choices regarding how to relate towards others and towards themselves (and then how they come to grips with the consequences of those choices). As such, these films lead the viewer to reflect on their own attitudes and beliefs.

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Capsule Reviews by Bill Mousoulis

A welcome annual event this one, considering the paucity of Greek films in the cinemas and in other festivals (though a number do make it to SBS-TV).

But 95% of the audience were Greek – “Greek pride” is almost as self-marginalising as “Gay pride”. Festival curator Eleni Bertes is aware of this problem, and so hopefully some cultural cross-fertilisation will occur in the future with this festival (which has now established itself as a fixture of the Melbourne film calendar.)

Quick impressions of the films now follow, in the order I saw them in.

(MY RATINGS SYSTEM:   0 = Bottom Ten of all time;  1 = Abysmal;  2 = Very Poor;  3 = Poor;  4 = Below Average;  5 = Average;  6 = Good;  7 = Very Good;  8 = Great;  9 = Masterpiece;  10 = Top Ten of all time.)

The Canary Yellow Bicycle
dir: Dimitris Stavrakas, 1999

A strange choice for Opening Night film, but obviously chosen as a response to the complaints last year’s Opener, From the Edge of the City, a Head On (Ana Kokkinos, 1998)-like odyssey, got from certain audience members. Bicycle is your safe, “humanist” bet. That said, I much prefer this film! Caring, sensible (but irrational in love!) teacher helps a mocked, partly-illiterate boy (a dead ringer for the kid in Cassavetes’ 1980 Gloria). A much-filmed story, but nicely handled here, with simplicity and gentleness. The style and rhythm are like a mix of Angelopoulos and Bresson – subtle grace notes aimed for constantly (and hit many times).   (6)

The Man in Grey
Pericles Hoursoglou, 1998

The art film style, treating everyday themes, continues with this film, the director’s second. Hoursoglou has worked with Pantelis Voulgaris (It’s a Long Road [1998]) and it shows. How wonderful it is to see 60 year olds kissing! The idea of the retiring man in crisis (á la Kurosawa’s 1952 Ikiru) is always a bit clichéd and implausible, and this film doesn’t break any new ground with it. Leonidas (Yorgos Michalakopoulos) has an affair, but he returns to his family. The last few scenes are quite charged. One shot in particular of his wife Maro (Rania Economidou) is great – she jumps when Leonidas unexpectedly walks into the house. Yes, even for 60 year olds, life can have its shocks.  (6)

The Numbered
Tassos Psarras, 1999

Standard, derivative thriller, where the small-time, perennial loser Manos (the Russell Crowe-lookalike Fotis Spyros) scams a fortune via the internet and how a private dick then …. You get the picture. Uninspiring melange of this genre material with a slick production design. Left me cold.    (4)

The Mating Game
Olga Malea, 1998

This is probably what Emma-Kate Croghan’s Strange Planet (1998) would have been like if it had any zest or imagination. The Mating Game also recalls the TV show Sex and the City, but, thankfully, it doesn’t have that show’s self-consciousness. Three sisters, looking for love, and making all those terrible mistakes that we sometimes make. Sisters. This film has a clear-cut feminist energy to it that is quite delightful to experience.    (6)

Safe Sex
Thanassis Papathanasiou,  1999

A bit like a dumbed-down version of The Mating Game, but with none of the feminism. Plenty of unsafe sex practised here, by more characters than are in Magnolia (P.T. Anderson, 1999) and Happiness (Todd Solondz, 1998) combined! Two sold-out sessions of this had the audiences laughing hard. Hey, and I was too. This is a fast, witty, vulgar, colourful comedy (with some acute observations thrown in there also actually).    (6)

Black Out
Menelaos Karamaghiolis, 1998

Oh boy. 160 minutes of an unstructured mess, three films (yes, three distinct formal ideas) rolled into one. Its stylisations do not make up for its shallow characterisations and pretentious metaphysics.   (4)

The Photographers
Nikos Koundouros, 1998

Could this possibly be directed by the man responsible for Magic City (1954) and The Ogre (1956)? I haven’t seen any of his films made after those two, and The Photographers hardly makes me want to! This is an incredibly out-of-control and misjudged film. It bears all the signs of a patch-job (maybe the director was only able to give general instructions, due to age/ill health?). Thematically and stylistically, it has many similarities to the over-rated Three Kings (David O. Russell, 1999). The TV interviews with the mercenaries, where they speak their own various languages, are interesting. Otherwise, this film contains some of the cinema’s worst acting ever.    (2)

Attack of the Giant Moussaka
Panos Koutras, 1999

I guess the title says it all – it’s a satire on that genre. With the necessary updating – media coverage of the event, and a camp regard (aesthetically, but also with the choice of characters).    (5)


An Athens Summer Night’s Dream
Dimitris Athanitis, 1999

Earth and Water
Panos Karkanevatos, 1999

Let the Women Wait
Stavros Tsiolis, 1998

Angelos Franzis, 1999