2018 Film Reviews

ArteKino Festival 2018 Review: Babis Makridis’ ‘Pity’

Whether or not the cinematic talent emerging from Greece over the past decade constitutes a definitive “wave,” it cannot be disputed that the group of filmmakers and writers orbiting Yorgos Lanthimos has certainly calibrated Greek cinema to a disturbing and daring polarity. As distinct as these voices are, there is certainly a unifying principle among the central figures of what has been termed the “Greek Weird Wave”; works like Athina Rachel Tsangari’s Chevalier (2015) and Argyris Papadimitropoulos’ Suntan (2016) are concerned with the intricacies of relationships between people whose inability to engage on an intimate level manifests itself in arcane games and outré coping mechanisms, exploring modes of pathology with pitch-black humour and brutal absurdism. Babis Makridis has thus far been a peripheral figure in this group, but that may change with his sophomore feature.

Pity tells the story of a well-to-do lawyer (Yannis Drakopoulos) who is struggling to cope with the hospitalisation of his wife following an accident which has left her in a coma. A neighbour in the lawyer’s upscale apartment complex comforts him and his son every morning with an orange cake she has baked for them, and everyone in the family’s extensive support network extends their deepest sympathies to him in this trying time. At the same time, the lawyer is representing a family whose father has been brutally murdered, poring over the grisly details of the case. As the lawyer begins to become accustomed to his predicament, a dramatic change takes place, and he struggles to adjust to a new reality.

Pity shares many of the thematic concerns which run through the “Greek Weird Wave” — which is unsurprising, given it was co-written by long-time Lanthimos collaborator Efthymis Filippou. Whereas Makridis’s debut feature, L (2012), dealt with the consequences of economic precarity, Pity explores the ramifications of emotional precarity. Like many of the other “Greek Weird Wave” works, Pity seeks to comprehend aberrant thinking that is sanctioned within a specific milieu, and the calamitous consequences that ensue when the characters step outside the context of that milieu yet retain their aberrant mindset. In the lawyer’s case, the milieu which sustains him is the hospital; he moves and speaks like grief, finding a cathartic charge in a world of sadness and sympathy he is unwilling to leave.

Makridis captures the lawyer’s immersion in the motions of misery with standoffish medium shots which only move in at moments of the most acute unease and vulnerability. The effect is an amalgam of Michael Haneke’s clinical eye, Aki Kaurismäki’s artfully awkward tableaux and the darkly comic sensibility of Todd Solondz. There is a suggestion that Makridis is actively parodying the lachrymose tenor of European “art cinema” and its propensity to wallow in despair and suffering, from the consciously overwrought strains of Mikolaj Trzaska’s theme music to the lawyer’s positioning as a classic avatar for subverted bourgeois banality and rectitude. Makridis deftly juxtaposes the lawyer’s saturnine demeanour with the achingly upscale domestic and professional interiors and sun-drenched coastal exteriors, and engenders the lawyer’s anhedonic tendencies in moments like his disrupting a poker game with friends to recount the tragic ending of Franco Zeffirelli’s maudlin boxing drama The Champ (1979).

Drakopoulos’ central performance betrays so much in its blankness. On the surface, it is a Keatonesque comic deadpan, but he manages to imbue it with a deeper resonance, an abiding sensation of presentiment. His flat affect and rigid demeanour bespeak equally the lawyer’s pain and calculation. As a lawyer, he sees pity as a useful strategy in winning cases, and he applies the same logic to his life. Makridis and Filippou’s dialogue is perfectly pitched to signify pity as an exercise in power, as the lawyer is able to exert psychic leverage over those around him. Succumbing to sadness assumes its own logic, to feel embattled by life takes on the impression of heroism, of venturing into a tempest. Tone is crucial to achieving this effect; Drakopoulos conducts human interaction like an interrogation, as if the least trace of emotional inflection may incriminate him, and the curt dialogue articulates this distance.

By tracing the enervating momentum of the lawyer’s performative sadness, Pity points in its own way towards some ugly cultural trends: the desire to distinguish oneself in any manner from the mass of people, to justify one’s existence in the eyes of others, to wrap oneself in context-erasing certainties, to draw comfort from destruction. The lawyer’s anomie finds its expression in an elevated emotional state, and Makridis raises the comic stakes in his charting of the lawyer’s quest for an adequate approximation of that state. The stakes are raised to an almost histrionic pitch, drawing closer to social taboos in its escalation of the premise. But there is never a sense of provocation; its layering of sadness taps into a rich seam of irony.

Yet for all its formal playfulness, Pity never abdicates hope. Makridis takes up Tsangari’s concept of “scientific tenderness,” regarding his central character as operating beyond the bounds of his own comprehension in the obliteration of his joy, locked in a self-undermining spiral that sees any possibility as a threat. What saves Pity, and the “Greek Weird Wave” as a whole, from tipping into nihilism is the humanism at its core; it is the pessimism of thwarted hopes rather than the negative drive of cynicism. Pity asserts that for all the lure of Thanatos, Eros will find a way of prevailing; the light will find a way through, whether we choose to recognise its presence or not. In finding a place for the light in his work, Makridis has solidified his standing as one of the most compelling voices of the “Greek Weird Wave.”

D.M. Palmer (@MrDMPalmer) is a writer based in Sheffield, UK. He has contributed to sites like HeyUGuys, The Shiznit, Sabotage Times, Roobla, Column F, The State of the Arts and Film Inquiry. He has a propensity to wax lyrical about Film Noir on the slightest provocation, which makes him a hit at parties. The detritus of his creative outpourings can be found at waxbarricades.wordpress.com.