Capturing not only the pain of Europe’s immigration drama but the degradation of Greece amid the hustlers and the crazies, Amerika Square (Plateia Amerikis) will long be remembered for its chilling portrait of an angry, disenfranchised racist who turns to poisoning immigrants to make them “go back where they came from.” The anguishing, downbeat illegal-immigrant story may be getting a little too familiar to have much bite at the box office, but this drama directed with clarity and compassion by Yannis Sakaridis should be well appreciated by festival audiences. It won the FIPRESCI award in Thessaloniki.
Sakaridis moved from an editing career to directing with Wild Duck (2013), a phone-hacking drama with political overtones. In his second feature, he pushes to the breaking point the social and moral questions arising from how Europeans respond to the human flood of immigration. The liberal and the xenophobe are shown as friends with each other, suggesting that one's attitude to immigration is not linked to class and is an individual response.
Nako (the low key, realistic Makis Papadimitriou) is a frustrated, unemployed schlump who still lives at home with Mom and Dad. In a sardonic voiceover, he lists all the foreigners living in his building. They come from all over the world and, to his mind, foul the whole neighborhood. In contrast, the images show normal, friendly people going about their business. Nako’s own psychological profile is pretty dismal, described in a few cutting strokes that show a long-running conflict with his father and a chronic inability to find a job. If he initially skirts the comic, he turns deadly serious when he hatches a plan to make homemade bread laced with strychnine and hang it in bags from garbage cans to tempt the hungry and the homeless. He is targeting immigrants, but killing vagabonds would surely be okay, too.
In a relationship so flimsy it seems like pure narrative convenience, the nerdy Nako entertains a casual friendship with ultra-cool tattoo artist Billy (Yannis Stankoglou), even though he’s against tattoos. Equally lightweight is the way Billy falls for a pretty African nightclub singer (Ksenia Dania) to the point of running afoul of her gangster protector and finally sacrificing everything for her. There just isn't enough motivation for his extreme behavior. But when he agrees to tattoo “Refuse to Sink” over the girl’s fading “Property of Mike," it’s a statement of liberation for both of them.
Tarek, played with intelligence and nervous intensity by Vassilis Kukalani, is the most engrossing character. A middle-class Syrian on the run from the war with his little daughter (end of background), he's anxiously looking for passage to Germany. His “travel agent” is Hassan, who outlines the various routes and prices available (raft, private boat, plane) with unsettling precision. Tarek opts for air travel with fake passports, but the stakes are raised when he's separated from his daughter in an uneven test of wills with the “authorities.”
In spite of its inconsistencies, Amerika Square is overall one of the best European films to date on the subject of immigration in all its painful implications. Nako and Tarek, who only meet briefly in the film under the oddest of circumstances, represent two diametrically opposing forces that threaten to overwhelm the social order. The only question at this point is who will eat the poisoned bread, and all roads lead to disaster. The film sidesteps many, if not all, of the expected clichés to end on a mythic/heroic note.
Sakaridis, who did his own editing, interweaves the stories in a natural way with well-written voiceovers. One of them notes how no one wanted to sit on park benches until they were "occupied" by foreigners. Minos Matsas’ music bubbles through the soundtrack, adding atmosphere to Jan Vogel’s very fine cinematography that emphasizes people in a landscape.
Venue: Kolkata Film Festival (Innovation in Moving Images competition)
Production companies: ERT, Marblemen, Athens Filmmakers’ Coop in association with True Motion Pictures, Greek Film Center
Cast: Vassilis Kukalani, Yannis Stankoglu, Makis Papadimitriou, Alexandros Logothetis, Rea Pediaditaki, Themis Bazaka, Errikos Litsis
Director-editor: Yannis Sakaridis
Screenwriters: Yannis Tsirbas, Vangelis Mourikis, Yannis Sararidis, based on Tsirbas’ novel
Producers: Yannis Sakaridis, Nikkos J. Frangos, George T. Lemos, Venia Vergou
Coproducer: Dimitris Sakaridis
Director of photography: Jan Vogel
Production designer: Alexia Theodoraki
Music: Minos Matsas
World sales: Patra Spanou
Not rated, 86 minutes