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Karlovy Vary Review: Punchy, Difficult, Allegorically Urgent Greek Tragedy ‘A Blast’

Karlovy Vary Review: Punchy, Difficult, Allegorically Urgent Greek Tragedy 'A Blast'

A film composed of jagged edges, told in short, staccato scenes that feel not so much edited as fed through a shredder and flung at your eyes, Syllas Tzoumerkas‘ “A Blast” is a hard, unforgiving and occasionally shrill watch but it explodes through those barriers with its intense energy and pinpoint topicality. It somehow feels appropriate that with the so-called Greek Weird Wave forged in the crucible of the beginning of Greece’s economic collapse, now over half a decade later we have “A Blast.” It is part of that movement in theme (the legacy of suffocating debt that the older generation has left for the younger, who are thus ensnared in an impossible situation not of their own making) and in allegorical strength, but not at all in style. Gone are the carefully composed frames, colored in controlled, cool palettes that we might have considered the movement’s overriding aesthetic to date. Here instead is a nerve-jangling jumble of confused chronology and confrontational high drama; at the time of writing it is an almost perfect reflection of the dramatic situation in Greece, whose fate as regards the Eurozone remains so perilously in the balance.

But as much as it is unavoidably the story of Greece, with people becoming representations of generations, or of attitudes, or of societal injustices it is also the story of one woman, a difficult and often unlikable one, whose accelerating nervous breakdown we follow throughout the course of the film, and whose eventual bid for freedom operates on a personal level as much as it does a metaphorical one. The film zig-zags in time, crashing brief scenes of years-ago bliss or optimism up against current-day scenes of hardship, but the story that gradually emerges is of Maria, played by “Dogtooth” actress Angeliki Papoulia, in a remarkably elastic performance, often informing us of our place in time merely through her expression. Maria is young and pretty and enjoys a loudly vulgar relationship with her slightly slow, less attractive sister Gogo (Maria Filini). She gets accepted to law school, braying with delight at the news. She meets and falls hard for handsome sailor Yannis (Vassilis Doganis) an Adonis with whom she enjoys a passionate, and graphic, love affair, and whom she eventually marries and has two children with. Gogo also marries, and while Yannis is away many months of the year, initially at least, he sends Maria loving messages and Skypes often, in between blissful reunions of yelping sex.

But whatever security such a volatile person could enjoy is shattered by the news that her wheelchair-bound mother and aging father have been hiding mountainous tax debt from her; debts that effectively cripple her own future prospects and involve her in Kafkaesque negotiations with government agencies and accountants and banks. Meantime the priapic Yannis, who has been sleeping with prostitutes while away as well as maintaining an ongoing gay affair with a shipmate, is absent but trying to get home to the wife and kids he still, in his fashion, loves. But Maria’s life is fraying–she goes to group therapy, she refuses Yannis’ calls, the incandescent vitality of her youth seems to burn away before our eyes, until only bitter cinders remain.

Some of Tzoumerkas’ choices are questionable. The heightened soap operatics of the scenes of screaming and roughhousing (whether through giddy joy or inexpressible despair) are so melodramatic as to strain credulity. Maria at one point drags her mother from her wheelchair and spanks her; she screams insults at Gogo, barreling past her on the stairs; she batters herself against Yannis repeatedly demanding protestations of undying love. Individually these moments jar, but cumulatively they do give the sense of Maria’s pugnacious reaction to the progressive caging of her ungovernable spirit: she hammers against the enclosing doom like a bird battering itself to death against a window.

In fact, it is unusual how very present Maria is throughout. Tzoumerkas refuses to portray her as anything so uncomplicated as a victim; she is as complicit in her breakdown as any outside force or personality. It’s also remarkable for being mediated through a female perspective–were she a man this story would be a much more familiar tale of 70’s style “Freebird”-ing wanderlust, baby. Instead, Maria is explicitly a woman–wife, daughter, mother, sister–and some of the scenes of most urgent, shocking power come from quieter moments when she simply, clearly negates or repudiates one of those prescribed roles. She quietly tells her counseling group that she never wants to see her children again. She openly despises Gogo’s weakness for allowing her increasingly right-wing husband to beat her. She coolly sits across a dinner table from her father, now a widower, and explains in the cruelest terms how unnecessary and revolting he is to her: parricide over a bowl of soup. In fact Maria’s journey can be read as a series of assassinations, of everything and everyone she has ever known.

There are subtle differences in moral judgement between escaping and fleeing and abandoning, and Maria’s behavior can be interpreted as any of those–how much sympathy you have for her will likely depend on where on that spectrum you place her. Flawed, challenging but increasingly fascinating the more you think about it afterward, “A Blast” is complicated and demanding and messy, like the world right now, like life. But it is also audacious in asserting an unusually devastating point of view, in which a narrative of personal liberation becomes a political allegory of powerful pessimism: Maria, like her country, may escape the shackles of unfair debt and struggle and poverty, but she can only do it by outrunning her pursuers, leaving a destabilized family behind and eventually facing the future in a state of staggering aloneness. [B/B+]

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