The Miracle of the Sargasso Sea review – Lynchian psychodrama in the sun

Criminal undercurrents in a sleepy Greek backwater provide the pretext for a disquieting spectacle of strangeness

A drumbeat of anxiety and impending violence thuds insistently from this opaque, disquieting spectacle from Greek film-maker Syllas Tzoumerkas – who has previously directed challenging films such as Homeland (2010) and A Blast (2014) and was screenwriter on the excellent male-midlife breakdown satire Suntan (2016).

Tzoumerkas’s movie goes out on a creaking limb of weirdness. It’s a bizarre, occasionally almost Lynchian film, alienated and alienating, interspersed – initially, at any rate – with dream-visions of biblical scenes in the burning sun. Its borderline preposterous narrative may simply be the pretext for its tableau of strangeness and bacchanal of dysfunction.

The introductory sequences seem to be those of a regular police drama about a big-city cop who starts her life again in a sleepy country backwater. It’s the kind of thing that gets shown on TV on Sunday nights, and I even wonder if Tzoumerkas initially developed his project with this more conventional end in view.

The Miracle of the Sargasso Sea teaser

Angeliki Papoulia plays Elisabeth, a tough police officer in Athens shown coolly interrogating a suspected terrorist. But however capable Elisabeth is, she is to be scared into quitting Athens and lying low, terrified by the possibility that the terrorists are tracking her and her young son. Or, ambiguously, she is sickened by the idea that her superiors are faking the supposed threat with planted photos as a way of making her falsify a confession from their detainee in return for police “protection”.

Either way, she and her son fetch up in Mesolongi in remote western Greece, where she is now chief of the local station, disguised like someone in witness protection with a very odd new blond wig or dye-job. She is extravagantly aggressive and heavy-drinking, involved in a messy affair with a local man.

Her destiny is to intertwine with a local woman, Rita (played by the movie’s co-writer Youla Boudali), who has the grim job of gutting eels in a factory. Rita is bullied and abused by her creep of a brother, Manolis (Hristos Passalis), who runs a nightclub in the town and appears to be using her as a hostess there to facilitate the movement of drugs through his establishment. Pompous Manolis makes a great show of looking after their elderly dementia-affected mother and taunts Rita with his conviction that the old woman likes him more than her.

Yearning for release … Youla Boudali.
Yearning for release … Youla Boudali. Photograph: PR Company Handout

One night, Manolis – who also appears to have nursed hopes of being a pop star – grabs the mic at his nightclub and lets rip with a meandering song which turns into a rant at how horrible Mesolongi is, to the rage of locals. It is to end in a nightmare on the beach, together with hospital doctor Vassilis (Argyris Xafis), state prosecutor Andreas (Laertis Malkotsis) and his learning-disabled brother Michalis (Thanasis Dovris). And if you didn’t suspect that everyone was involved in some sort of grisly group dysfunction, you certainly would after the thoroughly strange “dinner party” scene at which almost everyone is present.

Both Elisabeth and Rita – in their agony – are yearning for (or, perhaps, carried unintentionally down river towards) a Sargasso sea of release, of freedom – this being a spawning site for endangered marine life, including eels. Is this the point? Maybe. It’s a film that generates a lot more heat than light, a psycho-melodrama burning itself to ash in the sun.

Contributor

Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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