The heroine’s name is Antigone, but the myths at work in “Standing Aside, Watching,” are those of the American western, a western one whose heroine has more cojones than a dozen Gary Coopers. The film? A model of urgent, contemporary storytelling by Greek director Yorgos Servetas, with a sometimes spare, sometimes epic visual take on modern Greece and a story that synthesizes past and present, while creating its own drama.
The empowered female seldom arrives more empowered than Antigone, or creates such an captivating dust storm of righteous anger. Played with delicious ferocity by Marina Symeou, Antigone returns to her backwater home town after a failed acting career in Athens, and finds the place the way Wyatt Earp found Tombstone. Antigone – in Greek myth, the daughter of Oedipus and Jocasta, and, a la Sophocles, the plague of male injustice – gets a job as an English teacher, finds a much younger lover, reconnects with friends, and starts to settle in. But her best girlfriend is in an abusive relationship with one of the town’s leading thugs, the criminal element has taken over, there is no law, no order and no courage among those who ought to have it. Antigone is no avenging angel, but neither can she resist getting down to business.
In “Standing Aside, Watching” – the thing we should not do, obviously, when foul play is afoot – Servetas makes grand, sweeping surveys of rural Greece, the glories of its mountains, the limpid expanse of its waters, and juxtaposes the natural beauties of a country in distress with the man-made calamities that arise when greed, corruption and unsavory appetites are allowed to run rampant over good people who say nothing. Servetas is not delivering a sermon – the references to the current state of Greece may in fact be entirely in the eye of the viewer. What he’s delivering is a thriller, albeit an intelligent, naturalistic one with a heroine whose only superpower is her conscience, accompanied by an inability to stifle it for the sake of an unhappy peace. The movie grabs you by the neck, Symeou is a wonder, and Servetas knows exactly what to do with both.