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Joy: Shanghai Review

Joy Film Still - H 2013

The Bottom Line

A measured, humanistic art film looks into the mind of a baby-snatcher.

A madwoman is caught up in a travesty of justice in a contemporary Greek tragedy.

Though stolen children have always made for edge-of-seat storytelling, they’ve been worked to death as a plot point. Enter Joy, an off-beat Greek anti-thriller that turns the genre rules around, while teasing the viewer to unravel the psyche of a woman who kidnaps a baby from a hospital. Written, directed and produced by established documaker Elias Giannakakis (who has a 2004 feature, Alemaya, to his credit), its rigorous black-and-white photography and terse, no-frills screenplay are open-ended, giving audiences the choice to dislike or sympathize with the baby-snatcher. The film’s stern elegance should find supporters at festivals (Thessaloniki, Shanghai, Karlovy Vary are among its first stops), but its deliberate elisions and refusal to take a clear moral stand is likely to discourage casual viewers.

The first 20 minutes do plod along a bit predictably, after Hara (Amalia Moutoussi) slips into a maternity ward and walks off with a 6-month-old infant. No one tries to stop her and she calmly returns home to her apartment, crooning lovingly to the child. She’s clearly a little batty and the suspense builds over  whether she’s going to harm the baby. Driving to the seaside, she picks up an old man (Nikos Flesas) who’s hitchhiking, then gets into a fight with two lowlifes who want to steal the baby and sell it.  She protects it so fiercely she kills one of the men, and the rest of the story centers around her trial for child abduction and murder.

At this point the film enters another register altogether, focusing on Hara’s feelings and motivations vs. the justice system. She is silent and wide-eyed during the police interrogation and refuses to say a word in her own defense, even to her own lawyer (Yorgos Symeonidis) who has been appointed by the state and who, as he notes, is working for pennies, assuming he even gets paid.  At first annoyed, then angered by his client’s silence, he is slowly but inexorably drawn into the case.  He dutifully collects witnesses like her sour old mother (Lida Protopsalti), who refuses to defend her in court though she holds the key to Hara’s mysterious, catatonic behavior. Instead of pouncing on this evidence, which really explains everything, the D.A. puts the baby’s hysterical mother (Stefania Goulioti) on the stand and seeks a conviction and a life sentence.

Notably the judges, state prosecutor and even the detective who arrests Hara are all heard but not seen, kept off screen like a dire force of blind justice that won’t look human suffering in the face.  Greece’s former military dictatorship is also conjured up in the court’s appraisal of the old hitchhiker, who has read about the case in the papers and spontaneously steps forward to testify that Hara was not in cahoots with the criminal she killed. When the prosecutor notes that the old-timer has been previously convicted of perjury, the lawyer objects it was under the dictatorship and by implication not to be taken into consideration.

Though the medical examiner insists Hara shows no signs of schizophrenia, most viewers will find her seriously out to lunch and a danger to any baby. In any case,Moutoussi (One Day in August, Homeland) is a strong protag, revealing the inner workings of Hara’s strange mindeven without speaking and giving immense dignity and determination to a very damaged character.

Giannakakis directs all the cast with measured compunction, bringing out just the few traits he needs in them. He is seconded byYorgos Argiroiliopoulos’ precision black and white cinematography that seems to imprison all the characters.

Venue:  Shanghai Film Festival (competition), June 20, 2013
Cast:  Amalia Moutoussi, Yorgos Symeonidis, Nikos Flessas, Stefania Goulioti, Lida Protopsalti
Director:  Elias Giannakakis
Screenwriter:  Elias Giannakakis
Producer: Elias Giannakakis  
Director of photography:  Yorgos Argiroiliopoulos
Costumes: Eva Kamberidou, Triada Papadaki
Music:  Kostas Varybopiotis
Editor:  Dora Masklavanou
No rating, 75 minutes.