At Home (Sto spiti): Berlin Review

Maria Kallimani and Zoi Asimaki in 'At Home'
This somewhat self-important, so-called “dry melodrama” is a little too dry and lacking in drama for its own good.

Athanasios Karanikolas’ third feature provides a vehicle for Maria Kallimani's magnetic lead performance as a martyred housekeeper thrown on the scrapheap by her employers when she falls ill.

A wealthy Greek family has employed Nadja, a Georgian immigrant for years as their all-purpose domestic servant, but when their economic circumstances change and Nadja becomes seriously ill, suddenly she’s demoted from family member to dispensable employee in At Home.There are a lot of good things going for writer-director Athanasios Karanikolas’ third feature, including a magnetic lead performance from Maria Kallimani, suggestive production and costume design, and a keen sense of social justice. Its rhythms, however, are sometimes oppressively ponderous and repetitive. Those flaws will keep the film walled up in arthouse venues domestically, but probably reap it further bookings on the festival circuit.

High on the hills of Marathon, Greece, in a concrete fortress of a house with a spectacular view of the sea, fortysomething Nadja (Kallimani) lives with family of three who’ve been her employers before their 12-year-old daughter Iris (Zoi Asimaki) was even born. The husband, Stephanos (Alexandros Logothetis), does something high-powered but unspecified, while the mother Evi (Marisha Triantafyllidou) is a writer of some kind. Nadja cleans, cooks, does the laundry, maintains the garden, and chauffeurs Iris to her piano and riding lessons when required. In her limited spare time, she’s dating Marcos (Giannis Tsortekis), the stable-hand who looks after Iris’ horse Spartakus. But given her own daughter Katerina (Nefeli Kouri) is off at university in Germany now, looking after Iris’ family is pretty much Nadja’s sole purpose in life.

One day, Nadja’s legs suddenly give way underneath her and she admits to numbness in parts of her body. Stephanos and Evi call in a favor from their doctor-friend Dimitris (Ieronimus Kaletsanos), and after a serious of tests it’s discovered that Nadja has a degenerative disease much like multiple sclerosis. Given Stephanos’ company is suffering from Greece’s economic crisis, it looks like he will be transferred soon to South Africa, so Stephanos argues they can’t afford to take care of Nadja. Evi, who likes to think of Nadja as a friend, tries to put up a fight for a better severance package for her, but in the end they simply offer her a cash pay-off and Evi’s car, which Nadja declines to accept. Left with no health insurance and a bleak future ahead, she moves in with Markos.

In the film’s press notes, director Karanikolas describes the film as a “dry melodrama,” meaning the plot would be at home in a classic Douglas Sirk-type weepie, but it’s told with a much cooler, detached emotional tone, with barely a raised voice throughout and no music to underscore feeling, apart from one scene where Katerina gives an impromptu a capella performance. (For the rest of the time, given the paucity of dialogue, the only sounds that can be heard are chirping cicadas.) In the tradition of Juanita Moore, Maria Kallimani’s Nadja is a stoic, noble victim, shafted by her rich employers who consider her a friend when it suits them but really have no more attachment to her than they do to Iris’ expensive-to-maintain, aging horse. And in the best tradition of melodrama, the strategy may backfire resulting in some viewers finding Nadja’s martyrish passivity annoying, although there’s no gainsaying Kallimani’s hard work here, using mostly just her sad, bruised eyes and exhausted posture to express all the despair her character feels.

As is the fashion these days with so many European arthouse films, Karanikolas and DoP Johannes M. Louis shoot most every scene in carefully composed master shots with very few cutaways or close-ups, all the better to show off the expensive Brutalist architecture of the family’s home or Athens’ scruffy, mean streets when the action ventures there. The costumes are likewise minimalist, putting Nadja in the same beige wrap dress in nearly every scene (does she wash it every day or have several exactly the same?), and no one wears anything with a pattern or any color beyond blue, black or some shade of taupe. And, of course, there are lots of shots showing Nadja just going about her everyday routines to underscore the drudgery of her work, which make the point needed all too clear and drag out the running time. A little humor might not have gone amiss, but perhaps the filmmakers felt that would have sullied the purity of the Big Message about the callousness of the rich and the suffering of the poor and dispossessed.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Forum)

Production: SHPN3 Filmproduktion, Oxymoron Films

Cast: Maria Kallimani, Marisha Triantafyllidou, Alexandros Logothetis, Zoi Asimaki, Giannis Tsortekis, Ieronimus Kaletsanos, Nefeli Kouri

Director, writer: Athanasios Karanikolas

Producers: Lasse Scharpen, Argyris Papadimitropoulos

Director of photography: Johannes M. Louis

Production designer: Aliki Kouvaka

Costume designer: Maria Karanikola

Editors: Monika Weber, Lorna Hoefler Steffen

Sales: SHPN3 Filmproduktion

No rating, 101 minutes