With very few exceptions, the viewer's patience has not been much rewarded in most of the challenging work of the "New Greek Cinema" that has invaded film festivals in the past few years. There is, certainly, a family resemblance between these films - an absurdist, exaggeratedly theatrical sensibility, an oblique, metaphorical way of passing mystery or whimsy off as portent. But, for all the inventiveness and risk manifested by filmmakers such as Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth), Athina Rachel Tsangari (Attenberg) or Babis Makridis (L), there hasn't always been a chance at maintaining an emotional connection with these perversely baffling exercises.
Yannis Economides' fourth feature, Stratos, is a clear exception - though one that, simultaneously and infuriatingly, works within and without the "New Greek Cinema"'s confines. It picks up on his contemporaries' abstract, over-determined symbolism, inspired by the frustration and rage Greece feels since its economy collapsed. But it marries it to a classic, recognisable thriller plot about an ex-con whose attempts at going straight land him in impossible situations.
This hero is Stratos Karamanis (the impressive Vangelis Mourikis, also a co-writer on the project), a stoic man bound by codes of honour in a society where that virtue has been entirely forgotten. Working night shifts as a baker while running contract killing jobs in the daytime, Stratos finds himself slowly pushed into a corner he can't get out of as his only friends, the neighbouring couple of Vicky (Vicky Papadopoulou) and Makis (Petros Zarvos), find themselves in debt to a sinister gangster who also wants to take him on and pull him off the orbit of the mob boss he took a fall for.
Stratos embodies the disaffection from the modern world surrounding him that Jean-Pierre Melville made his own in his classic existentialist noirs, the sense of clinging on to old-fashioned virtues that seem utterly pointless and superfluous elsewhere. In Mr. Economides's film, he is also turned into a heavy-handed metaphor for modern Greece, bankrupted and unable to escape its fate.
But all of it takes place at a glacial pace that is in equal parts portentous and boring, pedantic and inexorable, annoying and riveting. Nothing much happens in Stratos that justifies its sprawling running time in purely narrative terms; but it's precisely in the director's formalist deceleration of the plot, in the deliberate symbolism of the precisely framed shots and the ever-present silence, that the film differentiates itself from the median.
Both deadpan satirical and predictably ponderous, tightly coiled and sprawling out of focus, this "Mediterranean noir" as its own directors describes it becomes a disturbing, maddening proposition that seems to find its redemption in its own self-defeating ways. A singular object that requires the viewer to arm herself with a huge dollop of patience, but that may reward it if you keep faith - the very same faith that Stratos' very Greek fatalism seems to deny its characters.
TO MIKRO PSARI
Greece, Cyprus, Germany 2014
Cast Vangelis Mourikis, Vicky Papadopoulou, Petros Zarvos, Yannis Tsortekis, Yorgos Giannopoulos, Yannis Anastasakis, Polina Dellatola
Director Yannis Economides; screenwriters Mr. Economides, Thanos Xiros, Vangelis Mourikis, Christos V. Konstantakopoulos and Haris Lagoussis; cinematographer Dimitris Katsaitis (colour, widescreen); composer Babis Papadopoulos; costumes Youlia Stavridou; editor Yannis Chalkiadakis; producers Mr. Konstantakopoulos, Panis Paphadzis and Michael Weber; production companies Faliro House Productions, Argonauts Pictures, Match Factory Productions and YE Films in co-production with Feelgood Entertainment, PT-NERIT and the Cypriot Ministry of Culture
Screened February 10th 2014, Cinemaxx at Potsdamer Platz 9, Berlin (Berlinale 2014 official competition press screening)