Sunday, 6 October 2019

The Miracle Of The Sargasso Sea

Eel To Reel

The Miracle Of The Sargasso Sea
(aka To thávma tis thálassas
ton Sargassón)

Directed by Syllas Tzoumerkas
2019 Greece/Germany/Netherlands/Sweden
London Film Festival 2019 screening Friday 4th October

The Miracle Of The Sargasso Sea is my first film of six at this year’s London Film Festival and it turned out to be a good choice. I’ve not seen any of the ‘Greek new wave’ movies of recent years other than Dogtooth (which was spectacular, my review here) so I didn’t know quite what to expect but this looked to me like a film with a strong, central female character and... I certainly wasn’t wrong there. Two strong central female roles, in fact. One of these is Elisabeth, played by Angeliki Papoulia, who has been forced to flee the corruption of the police division she was working in ten years prior, transferred to a Greek island with her young son to be the local chief of police. The other is Rita, played by Youla Boudali who co-wrote the screenplay with the director. She plays a member of what I will only describe as a hugely disfunctional family, who’s brother gets murdered at some point in the film.

Starting off very strong with an opening sequence of terrorists being raided by the police, ten years prior to the events depicted in the rest of the film... the story offers up the metaphor that drives it, quite overtly, with a nature documentary being watched by Elsiabeth’s son, talking about eels migrating to the Sargasso Sea every year to give birth and then die. Rita herself works in an eel farm and this, in some ways, re-enforces the metaphor a little. Actually, the fact that this film is showing 'in festival' usually means it’s uncertified as yet but, if it gets a proper release in this country, I think there’s a strong chance the BBFC may want some of the scenes of the actors slaughtering live eels removed. That’s one the good things about seeing films in festival... they’re usually shown uncut.

Anyway, animal atrocities aside, the story that unfolds is of an alcoholic woman in charge of a police force who is every bit as corrupt as the one she left, with herself certainly as brutal and ‘above the law’ as the majority of her fellow officers. As the two leads go about their daily business, the camera follows them and really gets ‘in the face’ of the action. There’s a lot of hand held in this thing and it really adds to the grittiness of the piece as the various characters get up close and personal with the audience. There are times of violence, including but not limited to sexual violence... let’s just say that Rita is, kind of, a submissive personality... but the main take away from these sequences is that they don’t treat the conflict of the characters in a comic book manner. These sequences show the consequence of violence quite clearly on the wonderful make-up jobs of the bloody and pulped faces of the cast and are all the more... well not quite disturbing but certainly effective to get the message across that this kind of brutality is not something you want to be playing with in real life.

The actual disturbing part of this film, for me, was the unmitigated brutality and corruption of the various police agencies. Seriously, these make the 1940s and 1950s Los Angeles cops of James Ellroy’s novels look practically angelic...or they are at least in the same league. There was a question and answer session with both Syllas Tzoumerkas and Youla Boudali after the screening and the truly scary thing was that the two writers were both very familiar with the locales they were writing about and, in terms of the police brutality depicted in this movie, the director commented that his depiction of it was, if anything, not nearly as intense as the reality of the situation in Greece. That’s truly scary and I certainly don’t want to ever get into trouble with the police in that country if I could ever help it (though I suspect the same can be said over here too... it’s just a little more regulated and suppressed, I would guess).

Another thing which hit home is that the solution to the murder at the heart of the film is not arrived at by Elisabeth through a series of logical deductions from lots of clues. Instead, it just falls into her lap as part of some illegally obtained evidence she pretty much confiscates for her own purposes and she just gets lucky. Then, instead of using her power to do what the law requires of her and join the dots, she brutalises a confession out of the guilty party before doing something even more questionable but which is, at least, more about seeing a kind of justice done rather than carrying out the law. Something which, I suspect, is only possible because the dark underbelly of the family unit under investigation reaches right inside her own police force and so the people involved are obviously complicit in the particular brand of justice which she decides to mete out at the end of the movie.

And that’s me done with The Miracle Of The Sargasso Sea. There’s actually a lot to unpack and think about in terms of the central metaphor and the way in which the various characters experience the chaos of their life but that stuff needs to gestate in my brain a while. All I will say is that I hope that The Miracle of The Sargasso Sea gets some kind of uncut release in either the US or UK and that I get the opportunity to have another look at it. Anyone who is into police procedural movies or, more importantly, the way in which a happy family unit can appear to have a few cracks on the outside while, underneath, there is a huge problem, should get a blast out of watching this movie. I’m definitely going to have to track down this director’s other works at some point soon and give them a go.

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