Boy Eating the Bird's Food: Karlovy Vary Film Review

Starvation and alienation on the streets of modern-day Athens.

The Greek drama from first-time director Ektoras Lyzigos follows the life of a young man on the brink of starvation in modern-day Athens.

An intimate character study with a bitingly topical subtext, this Athens-set indie drama offers a more sombre alternative to the current Greek New Wave of stylised surrealism epitomised by Yorgos Lanthimos and Athina Rachel Tsangari. Part of the official competition at this year’s Karlovy Vary film festival, where its young star Yiannis Papadopoulos earned a special jury mention, Boy Eating the Bird’s Food is a technically impressive exercise in Bressonian social realism from the young first-time director Ektoras Lyzigos. But it is also a bracingly austere viewing experience, with limited appeal beyond festivals and specialist screenings.

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The protagonist, Yorgos, is a haunted young man hovering on the brink of starvation in contemporary Athens. Apparently educated and cultured, but estranged from family and friends, he lives alone in a cramped and crumbling apartment. When not eating the seeds he feeds his pet canary, he pilfers food from his elderly neighbour and roams the city’s streets, foraging scraps from bins. Such is his blank-eyed desperation he has no qualms about even stealing from the dead. If there are nods to Bresson in this fragmentary portrait of an alienated anti-hero, there are also literary antecedents in Camus, Dostoevsky and others.
In the film’s most memorably queasy scene, Yorgos masturbates into his hand, then cautiously licks up his own sperm. From eating bird seed to eating his own. Performed on camera, the ejaculation looks real, and may even prove to be a mildly sensational selling point for this otherwise slight and frustratingly elusive psycho-drama.
With Greece in economic and political turmoil, Boy Eating the Bird’s Food will inevitably be greeted as a topical commentary on the nation’s current austerity culture. Lyzigos calls it a kind of psychological case study of the crisis, although his story is actually based on the 1890 novel Hunger by the Norwegian Nobel Prize-winner and controversial Nazi sympathizer Knut Hamsun. A spare depiction of a nameless young man wandering the streets of Copenhagen in half-starved desperation, Hamsun’s semi-autobiographical novel was later hailed as one of the foundation stones of 20th century psychological literature.
Lygizos borrows more from the book’s basic premise than from specific episodes, although the sequence in which Yorgos essentially stalks a pretty young hotel receptionist is a straight lift from Hamsun. Bizarrely, this creepy low-level harassment eventually leads to a brief, botched romantic encounter in the woman’s apartment. Like everything else in the film, this scene is played almost wordlessly, with no dramatic context or clear psychological motivation. At one point Yorgos mutters to himself in a church, hinting that he is fasting as a ritual religious penance, but this potentially illuminating angle is instantly forgotten.
Lyzigos shoots almost every scene in tight in-your-face close-ups, his fidgety hand-held camera perched on Yorgos’ shoulder as he rambles restlessly through Athens. This is a bold aesthetic choice, sporadically throwing up beautifully framed compositions, but it also feels gimmicky and claustrophobic at times. There is simply not enough dramatic or emotional substance here to make this ultra-intimate cinéma-vérité style pay off. Ultimately, Boy Eating the Bird’s Food add up to little more than a sketchy experiment. Though mildly engaging in style and premise, this is a light snack, not a satisfying meal.
Venue: Karlovy Vary Film Festival
Production companies: Stefi Productions
Cast: Yannis Papadopoulos, Lila Baklesi, Kleopatra Perraki, Vangelis Kommatosa
Director: Ektoras Lyzigos
Writers: Ektoras Lyzigos, Knut Hamsun
Producer: Giorgios Karnavas
Cinematography: Dimitris Kassimatis
Editor: Gregory Rentis
Sales company: Stefi Productions
Rating TBC, 80 minutes