Exiled unceremoniously from her high flying job in Athens, Elisabeth is festering as the local police chief in the small Greek town of Messolonghi. She has become a toxic mess of bitterness and boozy coke binges, with procedural methods that make Harvey Keitel’s Bad Lieutenant look like Bob Ross on Xanax. Rita is the downtrodden and damaged sister of a seedily charismatic nightclub singer. A tragic suicide proves the catalyst that could slingshot both women out of their twin orbits of emotional and geographical stagnation. But first, they must survive the viperous fallout of degenerate barn sex parties, a mute with an Olympian lack of hygiene and perverse corruption at the highest level.
Tzoumerka’s third film packs a vicious punch that belies its languid, almost soporific tone. This meticulously crafted genre potpourri is happy to lead you into a false sense of mundanity, before letting rip with feral hardcore cluster fucks, foul-mouthed meltdowns and a truly shocking act of barbarous self-harm.
In terms of its Greek Weird Wave credentials, the film uses religious recreations, inspired musical choices and insane dream sequences to wrong foot the viewer. However, the plot is linear and the narrative unclouded. This preserves the integrity of the thriller element that forms its rigid backbone, never allowing the film to vegetate as the main protagonists have.
It is perfectly possible to enjoy The Miracle of the Sargasso Sea as a nasty contemporary thriller with arthouse overtones. It is equally possible to engage at a higher thematic and philosophical level that decodes its motives and agenda.
The small eel- farming town of Missolonghi has a relatively rich past in Greek history. It was the scene of a legendary siege during the Greek War of Independence, holding out stoically until a horribly failed mass migration attempt. Lord Byron’s heart is famously entombed there after being unable to leave, and eels themselves perform herculean tasks of migratory behaviour. All these things mirror the characters struggles and their inability to shake free from their unfulfilled lives, and further still the recent socio-political grinding of Greece itself.
Despite these strikingly strong parallels, the characters are much more than walking analogies. Fine acting and nuanced direction with a superbly curated audio collage of a soundtrack see to that.
Angeliki Papoulia is electric as the super salty police chief running on the acrid fumes of failure. How she manages to draw empathy from this constantly ticking dirty time- bomb of hate and cruelty is a testament to her craft. Youla Boudali is heartbreakingly candid as the tragically disconnected Rita, and Hristos Passalis is disgracefully repugnant as her venal bullying brother Manolas. Their shared screen chemistry is a glaring flashlight into the darkest recesses of degraded hedonism.
The resolution of these constantly shuffling character arcs is dispatched with a clinical efficiency that recalls the unflinching pragmatism of Kieślowski’s A Short Film About Killing. Yet surprisingly, Tzoumerka injects a soothing livener of optimism into the films final moments resulting in a restorative wave of catharsis.
This is artistically satisfying, hermetically sealed cinema, with the confidence to embrace a wide range of genre elements and a first-rate thriller to boot. The grimly explicit sex, theological symbolism and wince-inducing violence will keep you on your toes. But ultimately, it is a masterful tale of redemption come full circle via the conduit of moral bankruptcy and how the oxygen of freedom can still exist in the ethical vacuum of oppression.
Drama/Thriller, Horror, Surrealism | Greece | Cert: 18 | 121min | BFI London Film Festival | 3rd and 4th October 2019 | Dir. Syllas Tzoumerkas | Alfre Woodard, Richard Schiff, Aldis Hodge, LaMonica Garrett, Wendell Pierce.