Even when he’s sobbing — one of his cherished pastimes — the unnamed lead character in Babis Makridis’ sun-drenched, pitch-black comedy has a robotic quality, stiff-limbed and blank-faced. His ultra-mannered eccentricity might be attributed to his being partly the creation of Efthymis Filippou, the foremost screenwriter of the Greek Weird Wave, with Dogtooth, The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer among his credits.
But while the provocative ideas in some of those collaborations with Yorgos Lanthimos devolved into tiresome pretension, Pity offers something far more satisfying. As stylized as Makridis’ second feature is, it’s grounded in recognizable behavior, and its sly, dry playfulness reverberates with fascinating questions about emotions and how we portray them.
Propelled by the winningly odd deadpan performance of Yannis Drakopoulos (Chevalier), the film is an art house natural that won’t need anyone’s pity after its Sundance premiere.
Called simply “the Lawyer” in the film’s credits, Drakopoulos’ character is a hybrid of mournful silent-movie clown and loathsome pretender. His wife (Evi Saoulidou) has been hospitalized since an accident, her prospects of recovery from a coma looking increasingly dim. Or at least that’s how he prefers to see it, inviting others to do the same. He wears his pain with the same proud precision as his crisp lawyerly suits. His unapologetic sadness can feel like a form of bullying, manipulating others to fill the awkward silence with gestures of sympathy.
He mechanically accepts the offerings of fresh-baked orange cake from a neighbor (Georgina Chryskioti), and then savors the precious gift at the breakfast table with his teenage son (Panagiotis Tasoulis) and their soulful-eyed dog — who turns out to be a crucial character in the unfolding saga. At the dry cleaners, the proprietor (Makis Papadimitriou) gazes upon him as if on a saintly being, extending tender words of comfort along with discounts on his bill. The Lawyer thrives on everyone’s pity, but it isn’t enough. He insists to his father (Kostas Kotoulas) that his anguish is turning his hair white — a hoped-for badge of his elevated place in the human scheme. But his father finds not a single white hair; “It’s in your head,” he tells him.
That’s putting it mildly. Suffering becomes a kind of competitive sport for the Lawyer. When confronted with others who are grieving, he studies them not out of compassion but with envy. The naked, inconsolable pain of a stranger in the hospital becomes a point of comparison to his own ordeal. A couple of his clients, a middle-aged brother and sister (Nikos Karathanos and Nota Tserniafski) seeking justice for their father’s murder, are specimens to him and, bizarrely, sources of inspiration. And when something momentous happens that most people would embrace with humble gratitude, he feels deprived, and amps his poisonous self-absorption in drastic ways.
Every interaction — whether in the hospital, the protagonist’s high-rise apartment, or at the sunlit shoreline, whose beauty he’s all but blind to — is examined with a predominantly fixed camera. Makridis and director of photography Konstantinos Koukoulios use the widescreen frame eloquently, and the compositions often put geometry in the service of unspoken emotion: the Lawyer’s rigid posture against the horizontal expanse of the image; the heartbreaking swirl, viewed from overhead, of a hopeful swimmer against tides.
Intertitles serve as both tantalizing counterpoint and enriching underscore for the deliberately paced action. Through the judiciously used captions, Makridis and Filippou explore, among other things, the commonplaces of sympathy (“Have courage. Be patient.”) and the biological intricacies of crying (the upward route of tears from stomach to eyes). Voiceover narration, along with bursts of Beethoven and Mozart, reveal further aspects of an inner life held in precarious check.
Through its droll combo of stillness and churning dysfunction, perfectly embodied by Drakopoulos, Pity deconstructs the artifice of feeling and, most wickedly, movie sentimentality. Of all the cheesy tearjerkers in the world, it’s Franco Zeffirelli’s The Champ that makes an impression on the Lawyer — or at least suits the persona he needs to present to the world, at this moment in his performance as the grieving husband. The film muses at one point how “ridiculous” it is when any character in a movie cries. Cut to the Lawyer, blubbering like a baby.
Production companies: Neda Film, Faliro House Productions, Madants, Beben Films
Cast: Yannis Drakopoulos, Evi Saoulidou, Nota Tserniafski, Makis Papadimitriou, Georgina Chryskioti, Evdoxia Androulidaki, Nikos Karathanos, Kostas Kotoulas, Panagiotis Tasoulis
Director: Babis Makridis
Screenwriters: Efthimis Filippou, Babis Makridis
Producers: Amanda Livanou, Christos V. Konstantakopoulos, Klaudia ?mieja, Beata Rze?niczek
Director of photography: Konstantinos Koukoulios
Production designer: Anna Georgiadou
Costume designer: Dimitris Papathomas
Editor: Yannis Chalkiadakis
Casting directors: Christina Akzoti, Alex Kelly
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema Dramatic Competition)
Sales: New Europe Film Sales, ICM Partners