Having set myself the commitment of watching an international film every day during lockdown, there was one specific region that I found myself wanting to come back to time and time again. This region, of course, is usually famous for its ancient architecture and fascinating myths of gods and goddesses; but what really drew me in is Greek cinema’s brilliant ability to blend mundane familial narratives with themes of violence, independence and subtle shock tactics that linger in your mind for days on end.
Greek filmmakers are slowly meandering into the Hollywood ‘mainstream’ – with Yorgos Lanthimos becoming a household name at the Academy Awards since 2011, and Athina Rachel Tsangari earning her powerhouse status at 2010’s Venice Film Festival. Tsangari’s off-beat coming of age story Attenburg (2010) marries themes of femininity, fantasy and familial bonding. Enhanced by its setting in a typical industrial Greek town, Attenburg’s leading lady Marina (a stellar performance by Ariane Labed) yearns for new experiences to illuminate her lacklustre existence. Her relationship with her architect father Spyros (Vangelis Mourikis) is wholesome for the most part – and Marina becomes influenced by her father’s belief that most human lives become ‘ruined’ like architecture. Marina’s obsession with the human race not really being human takes over her everyday life, and the film’s unique depiction of the ‘other’ will instantly make you treasure the relationships you have forged. Although it’s probably the most ‘pleasant’ family story I’ve seen in Greek filmography so far, Attenburg still makes us question our own existence, and the normalcy of life as we know it.
Yorgos Lanthimos’ Dogtooth (2009) has become one of the most prominent accounts of Greek familial dramedy. The film gave Lanthimos his reputation as the new ‘whacky’ filmmaker in town – and his success in this led to his bizarre multi-award winning English language smash hits The Lobster (2015), The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017) and The Favourite (2018). Dogtooth tells the story of three ‘children’ (who are actually very much of age) that live in captivity by their ‘parents’. The ‘children’ are taught next to nothing about the outside world, and are told they can only leave the house once they lose a ‘dogtooth’. Through the very ‘ordinary’ camerawork and editing of Dogtooth which clashes with its undeniably repulsive plot, Lanthimos suggests that the extreme stories we see in the news of the likes of Josef Fritzl, Gertrude Baniszewski and more may not be so rare after all. The rapidly changing nature of the ‘father’ (played frighteningly well by Christos Stergioglou), from his unusual acts of kindness to his unspeakable acts of violence, is Lanthimos’ own monster – presented to us in human form. Lanthimos’ characters constantly push the boundaries of endurance as a response to restraint and manipulation – in a multitude of ways. In Dogtooth, the captivated children are deliberately taught that any words relating to freedom (such as ‘motorway’ or ‘excursion’) mean entirely different things. The distorted view of the world injected into these children is not only physical, but also linguistic. Lanthimos’ ability to often make us laugh during this violently sadistic story adds a touch of humanity to the unthinkable acts of disorder these children are eternally exposed to.
Lanthimos’ use of a controlling, abusive father figure in Dogtooth draws many parallels to Alexandros Avranas’ 2013 slow burn flick Miss Violence – one of the most disturbing films I have ever seen (coming from someone that spends the majority of her spare time watching horror films, that is definitely a bold statement). The film centers around a seemingly ‘normal’ nuclear Greek family headed by a nameless patriarch played by Themis Panou – and the aftermath of daughter Angeliki (Chloe Bolota) taking her own life at her 11th birthday party. With a wicked smile on her face as she jumps from the balcony, as the film unravels, we quickly learn why Angeliki made her escape. In a never ending, torturous cycle of abuse where victims become abusers and girls are pimped out for a handful of euros by the ‘father’; the film is one of the most harrowing yet sympathetic dramatizations of domestic violence I’ve ever seen. In Avranas’ tale, we’re never quite sure if Panou’s character is the ‘father figure’ after all – in fact we don’t really know how this intertwining family structure actually functions. There are five ‘children’ of varying ages and a completely absent ‘maternal’ figure who seems to want nothing to do with them, or her ‘husband’. But this uncertainty is what makes the paranoia and nauseating sensation of surprise in each scene extra gripping. The film ultimately closes with a difficult confrontational act of sexual violence – a gruesome end to a gruesome beginning.
The success of Miss Violence lies in its static filming style and the constant look of fear behind the actors’ eyes, masked behind an otherwise completely numb and expressionless demeanour. The smile on Angeliki’s face when she decides to take her own life is reminiscent of the same sense of pride and delirium exhibited by protagonist Justine in Julia Ducournau’s 2017 horror hit Raw. Even though we only see Angeliki for less than the first ten minutes of the film, that expression haunts us for the duration of Miss Violence. Although the ‘father’ will become one of your most hated characters, the excellent Volpi Cup winning performance by Panou is the main ingredient to the scenarios of everyday horror that Miss Violence won’t let us forget. The film is effectively soaked in a washed out, monotonous grey colour palette, that only adds to the bleak story we’ll wish we could erase from our memory.
Ultimately, this new wave of ‘weird’ arthouse cinema executed perfectly by Greek filmmakers keeps international audiences coming back for more because of its ability to mix the hyperreal and the surreal; while simultaneously being able to portray uncomfortable narratives that many other filmmakers would refrain from approaching. I very much look forward to seeing if the film industry will keep paving a path for these weird and wonderful stories, and I am incredibly hopeful that it will.
‘The Quiet Chaos of Greek Cinema’ is an article written by Ruwaida Khandker. You can follow Ruwaida on Instagram.