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The Berlinale Blog: Postcards from the edge

Judging by audience reaction to Greece’s visceral The Daughter and the haunting stoicism of Spain’s The Plague, Eve Lucas finds that Berlin is still a city in which sympathy for the poor and the tired trumps red carpet vanities.

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Greece is represented with several movies that deal with the fallout from economic crisis: read a bit about Elina Psykou, director of the quietly desperate The Eternal Return of Antonis Paraskevas here, to get a more intimate insight. In terms of shattering emotionality, however, Thanos Anastopoulos’ third feature The Daughter (I Kóri) is perhaps the most immediately effective of these Greek tragedies, taking us straight into harsh contemporary reality as we watch 14-year-old Myrto (Savina Alimani) stalking the streets of Athens and observing street protests as she stands outside the Bank of Greece. A slightly obvious shot, perhaps, but effective: a bewildered girl under the symbol of economic failure, signaling the conflict of youth versus maturity, individual versus establishment, engagement versus withdrawal.

Except that this shot, although emblematic, doesn’t come close to embracing this movie’s reach. Myrto’s father has disappeared. Debt issues. Her mother is shacked up with somebody emerging half-naked from the shower. But far from giving up, Myrto has kidnapped the eight-year-old son of her father’s partner, and is holding him in the timber yard that formerly constituted the family business, offloading her own sense of victimization onto somebody even younger and even less able to deal with what’s going on.  In the evenings, she reads to him from the dictionary: on dissolution. By day, her frustration erupts into bursts of emotional aggression. Anastopoulos’ film shows these as an knock-on consequence of the dog-eat-dog attitude governing society at large, a process of psychological depredation creating more debt – not so much to the country’s official creditors but to a new generation of young people over-burdened with responsibility.

New Greek cinema this is not. Plot-driven, and tautly edited, scenes of barely contained frustration alternate with episodes of false stillness and the occasional well-placed flashback into an Arcadian past. But Anastopoulos’ formal choices never appear standard issue, creating a relentless tension exploding into a finale of devastating intensity that had viewers covering their eyes. The performance of both young actors is astonishing. Things may be bleak, but Greek cinema certainly has the talent to make it stick.

In contrast, The Plague (La Plaga) from Spain takes a far less plot-driven approach – to the point of denying plot (and the need for it) almost completely in a docufictional rendition of the everyday. Working in an area that she’s known since childhood, Catalan director Neus Ballús brings together five people playing a temporally compressed version of their own lives, eking out subsistence on the outskirts of Barcelona. Her familiarity with the place and its inhabitants is an unspoken subtext, generating an often unarticulated closeness reflected in close-ups and short tracking shots of pensioner Maria, farmer Raül or prostitute Maribel, and set against an unresponsive, arid environment during an intense heat wave. Like Camus’ eponymous novel, Ballús shows individuals caught up in (now newly exacerbated) struggles as they cross paths with others for moments of solidarity, all the more precious as compassion becomes a casualty of economic strain. Unlike her Greek colleague, she admits the possibility of relief – but it’s brief. The closing shot of two people sitting in silence in a car, sharing the release of torrential rain, could be up there as one of the most moving moments at this year’s festival.