Is it coincidence that Metéora, the Competition film from Greece, directed by Spiros Stathoulopoulos, premieres at the Berlinale on a Sunday? Clearly striving to impose an intensely spiritual experience, Stathoulopoulos tells the story of a Greek orthodox monk, Theodorus, and a Russian Orthodox nun, Urania, who live across the valley from one another in a monastery and a convent perched atop sandstone rock pillars in Greece’s legendary Metéora monastery complex. Everything conspires to separate: the landscape, the ancient and secluded life of limitation chosen by the protagonists, the force of their own fears in transgressing those limitations.
Predictably, the narrative is long on images and short on content. But that’s not a bad thing. It’s unclear how Theodorus and Urania first meet: on errands, in the local village church. Because it’s not that important. Their attraction is established and shown in progressive degrees of intensity: the clasp of a hand, a shared joke, a fumbled embrace. The quietude of an Orthodox mass reigns throughout, interspersed with chanting, and bells, and the voices of the two protagonists declaiming the 23rd Psalm as they strive for some measure of absolution. “I shall not want.” But I do. There’s barely any dialogue, just the internalized clamour of carnality that Theodorus and Urania try to batten down the hatches of sensuality, prostrating themselves in their cells, inflicting penance.
The film works with a couple of very intrusive devices which viewers will welcome or reject, depending on whether or not they’ve bought into the story’s premise: most notably, episodes of animated narrative to explore biblical and Greek mythological notions of sin, failure and prohibitive love. The earth opening up to reveal the hellfire burning beneath; Theodorus following Urania/Ariadne’s thread into the dark cave of Minotaur sexuality before both are washed away on a red sea of Christ’s sacrificial blood, rising to destroy the world they are betraying. In between, the caress of reflected light that the protagonists beam across the valley to each other’s cells transmits mute and irrepressible love. Set against stunningly rendered images of the Pindos Mountains, the landscape symbolism reinforces the narrative: the tree of life sprouting on a small outcrop that rises between monastery and convent, the eternity of rock against the temporality of passion.
The film's opening lines, spoken by Theodorus and Urania; question God’s purpose with mankind: his ability to empathize with human love. The success of this film will depend on whether the public is captivated by notions such as these, and willing to accept the very stark, atavistically simplistic opposition set up by Stathoulopoulos between a man and a woman discovering the joys of this world, and their dedication to the world hereafter. As a vision of faith, the film is too laboured to justify comparison with Des Hommes et des Dieux or Die Grosse Stille. As a reflection on the most basic of choices rendered in the most elemental of settings, using devices that are idiomatically matched to the protagonists’ horizons—well, it worked for me.