It’s always exciting to see a nation not traditionally known for their cinematic output step up with a movement or wave of films and filmmakers that gain attention on the international scene. In recent years, some of the most exciting releases have come from directors based in Chile and South Korea, but just as notable have been the run of excellent cinema coming out of Greece. The wave began at Cannes in 2009 with Yorgos Lanthimos, “Dogtooth,” and has continued with his follow-up “Alps” and Athina Rachel Tsangari‘s “Attenberg,” among others. The latest to follow in their footsteps is Alexandros Avranas‘ “Miss Violence,” and if our reaction when the film screened on the Lido yesterday is anything to go by, it’s going to he just as acclaimed and successful as those pictures.
The film opens with a stunning scene, as a family celebrate the 11th birthday of Angeliki (Chloe Bolota). As they eat cake and dance, the birthday girl walks onto the balcony, stares down the lens, smiles to herself, and jumps over the railings, the camera then panning down to reveal her dead on the ground below. The rest of the family—the patriarch (Themis Panou), his wife (Reni Pittaki), Angeliki’s mother Eleni (Eleni Rossinou), eldest child Myrto (Sissy Toumasi), son Filippos (Konstantinos Athanasiades) and youngest Alkmini (Kalliopi Zontanou)—are devastated. But it soon becomes clear that something is very wrong in the family. Eleni walks through life as though heavily sedated, a desperate smile on her face. Father (the only name he’s ever given) rules the house with an arcane series of rituals and punishments. And Eleni is pregnant, but according to the others, won’t say who the father is.
Avranos very carefully and methodically parcels out his storytelling here. To begin with, it’s not even entirely clear what relation each character is to one another—it takes a little time for the viewer to realize that Father is married to Pittaki’s character rather than Eleni, and it’s later still that you pick up that Myrto is the aunt of the younger children, despite being only three years older than the late Angeliki. But this isn’t sloppy storytelling—in fact, it’s quite the opposite, the very deliberate obfuscation blurring the lines between the generations in a way that pays off later on (though not quite in the way that you might be guessing).
Almost every scene reveals some strange new piece of the puzzle, and as you inch forwards towards the horrifying secrets that reveal the reason that Angeliki took her own life, you’re entirely absorbed in the narrative. As it reached the conclusion, we almost had to physically restrain ourselves from shouting at the screen, which is not a position we’re in very often.
Not that it’s some empty mystery, though—like most of the Greek New Wave pictures, Greece’s economic collapse hangs heavy over the film, and the film wholeheartedly indicts a country that’s swinging alarmingly towards the fascist Golden Path movement. It’s not a pure state-of-the-nation picture though, with Avranas also discussing the rotten, corrupt heart of the family unit, and the way that society and individuals remain complacent in the face of terrible abuse.
Some of these themes have appeared in some of his countryman’s films, and “Dogtooth” in particular. Visually, too, Avranas seems to owe a debt to Lanthimos in particular, with the same kind of crisp digital photography and pristine, almost artificial framing at play, and it’s probably destined to be remembered in their shadow. But “Miss Violence” is a slightly different beast, less oblique than “Dogtooth” and “Alps,” and crucially, even more extreme.
It might be hard to be believe, but the film pushes boundaries even further than its progenitors. Two scenes in particular late on left audiences gasping, and risk being seen as exploitative. We think that they were just about justified—asking questions about what is the breaking point, underlined by the very ending—but they may well be moments at which many audiences are left behind.
Those for whom the film isn’t spoiled, however, will be left with one of the most powerful experiences we’ve had in a theater for a long time. On the back of a brace of impeccable performances—Panou’s complex, brutish, but not unloving father figure looks to be a frontrunner for Best Actor here in Venice, while Rossinou’s Stepfordish mask hiding an innocence she was never allowed to hang on to for long is particularly memorable—Avranas makes a claim to be considered among the top ranks of international filmmakers. If enough people can stomach the film, anyway… [A-]