The Greek Films of 2011 Reflect the Day's Greece
film criticWhile Greece struggles with psychic and economic woes, young film-makers are creating art out of adversity. Witness New York City’s Fifth Greek Film Festival 2011. The films were bitter, shocking, controversial, experimental, original, dynamic, awash in tragedy and black humor. The overly sentimental and vapid Gold Dust turned us off, but we thrilled to the Greek neo-noir of Tungsten and Knifer, as well as the risk-taking, sad kookiness of Attenberg. Says actor Vangelis Mourikis, who performed in all three films: “Film has come out of the studios and into the streets to deal with real life and the issues that are hot. Attenberg is a film of the streets because it’s part of the new reality.”

Greek Films of 2011

The controversial Attenberg, Greece’s entry for Best Foreign Film Academy Award nomination opened the festival. The quirky, anomalous film from talented director Athena Rachel Tsangaris refuses to offer comfort and joy. Re the title Attenberg: the nature documentaries of Sir David Attenborough inspire the characters who occasionally imitate animals.

In Attenberg, we encounter a tender, fatalistic father suffering from terminal cancer. Played by Vangelis Mourikis, the dad is the warm, beating heart of the film. “I’m boycotting the 20th century,” the father says. “I’m an old atheist, a toxic remnant of modernism. I’ll leave you in the arms of a new century without having taught you anything.” He also comments re the new Greece: “We built an industrial colony on top of sheep pens and thought we were creating a revolution.”

Ariane Labed portrays his daughter Marina, 23. She becomes her dying father’s friend and only support. It’s a coming-of-age film skewed to love and death. Sex forms the text and subtext of this film. With her father’s encouragement, the virginal Marina seeks a sexual encounter with a young man played by Yorgos Lanthimos, the director of last year’s Dogtooth.

At the end, the camera holds on a wasteland. You could be on the moon, but it’s Greece. Attenberg will be released in the USA by Strand in 2012.

Actor Mourikis, Attenberg’s father, in New York in conjunction with the festival, talked with Wall Street Greek. His distinctive, expressive face, with the huge black eyebrows draws you to the screen. It’s a Greek face, Zorbaish even. The actor’s in love with film, to the point of turning down theatre and TV roles. With forty films to his credit, Mourikis says: “The mythical world exists only in film, on the big screen. You can lose yourself in a film. It’s a different dimension, like drugs without drugs!”

Mourikis grew up in Athens where his father, a film buff, early on took him to the movies. “I would yell back at the screen.” He went to Australia to study film, and has also lived and worked in England and Italy.

Mourikis appeared in three films at the festival, including Tungsten, and says: “I die in most of my films at the end. I like it!”

Tungsten’s fabulous in so many ways, from its characters to its black and white cinematography. It’s a day in the life of disparate Athenians: a ticket tram inspector, played by Mourikis, a job recruiter, two young slackers – one half-heartedly looking for a job, the tram inspector’s wife, and the recruiter’s girlfriend. Tungsten takes its title from the metal with the highest boiling point, as it portrays characters burning with rage and frustration. Drenched in irony, the film moves to the beat of city life.

Trapped in no-exit lives, the characters make tragic wrong choices. One young slacker applies for a job. He’s interviewed by an impatient recruiter. Later we see the recruiter being browbeaten by his boss. Having a boring repetitive position can be almost as bad as not having a job! Director George Georgopoulos has a degree in sociology as well as film and it shows; the young director shows a keen insight into social structures and the dilemmas of Greece’s urban dwellers.

The director made the film for 5,000 Euros, or $6,000 with the agreement that all involved would share in the profits. Says Georgopoulos, “Tungsten’s an honest little film. I wrote, directed and edited the film.” As for Tungsten’s tragic conclusion, he admits: “I couldn’t have done it any other way. It wouldn’t be me!”

The film mirrors Athens today. But Georgopoulos began writing the script “during the Olympics, when Greece seemed like the center of the world.” Commenting on Athen’s young film-makers, Georgopoulos told Wall Street Greek: “We know each other and there’s a special energy. There’s a very collective spirit here.”

In Knifer, an angry, possessive, paranoiac husband keeps two black dogs for protection. Suspecting his neighbors of threatening himself and his dogs, he hires his nephew Nikos to watch the dogs. Nikos moves in a torpor, a creature who lives to eat and sleep, his eye-lids at half-mast. It takes Aleko’s sexy wife, Gogo, to snap Nikos awake. While Aleko walks his dogs at night, his nephew and wife, the predatory Gogo, engage in raw, desperate sex. It’s sad, funny and evokes our compassion as we see the brutish Aleko traveling into the dark.

In black and white, Knifer takes us inside a bleak Athens, a nowhere place with empty people knocking against each other. After stabbing his uncle to death, Nikos calms himself sitting on the edge of the bed in a rented hotel space and eating a huge bag of chips.

Knifer is cynical and rampant with black humor. It won seven Hellenic Academy Film Awards, including for best director and cinematography. Director Yannis Economides says it reflects the “dog eat dog life.” Knifer has a web site that offers a fascinating interview with the director.

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