'The Miracle of the Sargasso Sea' ('To thavma tis thalassas ton Sargasson'): Film Review | Berlin 2019

Courtesy of Berlinale
Atmosphere trumps storytelling.

The latest film from Greek director Syllas Tzoumerkas ('A Blast') stars Angeliki Papoulia ('Dogtooth,' 'The Lobster') in one of her best roles yet.

The destinies of two very different women in the Greek boondocks slowly intertwine in The Miracle of the Sargasso Sea (To thavma tis thalassas ton Sargasson). Part psychodrama and part Greek tragedy, this is an uneven but always intriguing look at life in rural western Greece, where an eel farm is practically the only local industry left keeping the entire community from going under. Though the film’s ambitions are at times a bit too grandiose — the eel metaphor to which the title also refers, for example, feels rather overstretched — there’s no denying that by the closing scenes, viewers will have the impression they know the town and its inhabitants. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s always entirely clear exactly what writer-director Syllas Tzoumerkas (A Blast, Homeland) and his regular co-writer and star, Youla Boudali, want to say. 

Though Sargasso’s supremely atmospheric sense of its very specific locale is unerring, this is, in reality, a complex European co-production, which besides Greece also involved Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden. More reminiscent of 1980s Lynch than the recent Greek Weird Wave, this unusual item is sold by Polish outfit New Europe Film Sales. They should be able to ensure a wide festival run as well as a few theatrical sales — if a streaming giant doesn’t snap it up first.

A prologue in Athens, set about ten years before the main story unfolds, suggests the action- and adrenaline-filled life that tough special-operations officer Elisabeth (Dogtooth star Angeliki Papoulia) left behind when she was moved to Mesolongi to become an ordinary police chief in the sleepiest of backwaters. She didn’t necessarily want to leave but it seems like she was forced to do so by the higher-ups — who are male, natch — to supposedly protect her young son. 

In the present, Dimitris (Christian Culdiba) has become a bored teenager who can’t yet drink away his unhappiness about being stuck in such a mind-numbing place the way his mother does. What hasn’t changed in the intervening years is Elisabeth’s devil-may-care attitude as rules don’t interest her and she’s afraid of no one. She walks onto a crime scene in a black leather jacket, pants and heels, having just come from a rough, sleepless night of heavy drinking. Snorting coke that was confiscated evidence in front of her colleagues is the least of her offenses and there’s always a sense that she’s either drunk or on drugs (or both), especially when she’s working. 

Though Sargasso is more interested in evoking Elisabeth’s state of mind than in explaining why she’s in that particular state, it’s obvious that she’s just trying to forget she’s probably the most exciting thing in this dead-end town. Except, perhaps, for the flamboyant local Manolis (Christos Passalis), the owner of a nightclub he likes to sing at and someone else who’s unafraid of mind-numbing narcotics. He’s also the domineering brother of Rita (Boudali), who might gut live eels for a living but who is otherwise a mousy presence. She also cleans the local church in her free time and occasionally has visions and dreams involving the Holy Family that feel disturbing rather than comforting. Could these visions be linked to the bad, video-quality footage from the past that occasionally surfaces?

While the screenplay definitely has too many elements to be able to function without dropping a few balls, Tzoumerkas does masterfully paint the stifling atmosphere of a godforsaken town where women’s dreams and potential have come to die. With a score that ventures into thriller territory, menacing zooms and eerily calm overheads shots, the film evokes a place that looks like a swamp ready to slowly engulf everything that comes near it.

The narrative kicks into a higher gear at a large, creepily staged dinner party attended by Elisabeth and Dimitris but also some of the other local notables (all of them men). By the time someone dares to suggest that “That’s the thing about small towns, everyone falls into their place,” it has become perfectly clear that this won’t be the kind of movie in which this piece of dialogue will be a spoiler for what’s in store.

Because Elisabeth and Rita are polar opposites but suffer from the same oppression and both have traumatic events in their past, it’s clear that they are a kind of mirror images whose destinies will finally intersect in the maelstrom of events that follow (the jumble of storylines is reminiscent of the way Tzoumerkas constructed the narrative of A Blast, another story in which various storytelling strands rubbed up against one another to try and get at some kind of emotional truth). Purely in terms of narrative, the story feels about as scattershot as the community pretends to be tight-knit. A shocking twist in the last act has almost no emotional impact — the character involved has little audience sympathy so it’s hard to care — and the ending also feels drawn out and suddenly oddly conventional, as if the director didn’t trust his audience to follow him along on his psychotrip until the end.

Angeliki Papoulia, who also headlined A Blast, indeed has one here as the woman who pretends to be strong and not care that she’s been exiled to a place far away from the action. She manages to make audiences feel attached to a woman who isn’t directly lovable at all. (The fact that she has a son helps to humanize her.) Boudali’s character is more of an enigma, but by design, as Rita is the kind of woman who doesn’t want to be noticed. The supporting cast is generally solid, though Passalis, who co-starred with Papoulia in Dogtooth and also appeared in Tzoumerkas’ debut feature, Homeland, has a tendency to go a little too big. His character might be extravagant and excessive but it doesn’t take all that much to stand out in a small town.

Production and costume design as well as the cinematography, courtesy of Swedish DP Petrus Sjovik, are all first-rate and help create an atmosphere best savored on the big screen. 

Production companies: Homemade Films, Unafilm, PRPL, Kakadua Filmproduktion, Film i Vast
Cast: Angeliki Papoulia, Youla Boudali, Christos Passalis, Argyris Xafis, Thanasis Dovris, Laertis Malkotsis, Maria Filini, Michalis Kimonas, Christian Culbida, Michalis Mathioudakis 
Director: Syllas Tzoumerkas 
Screenplay: Youla Boudali, Syllas Tzoumerkas 
Producer: Maria Drandaki 
Executive producer: Syllas Tzoumerkas
Director of photography: Petrus Sjovik
Production designer: Jorien Sont
Costume designer: Marli Aliferi
Editor: Andreas Wodraschke
Music: Jean-Paul Wall, Drog A Tek, Phoebus
Sales: New Europe Film Sales
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Panorama)

In Greek
No rating, 121 minutes