Stratos (To mikro psari): Berlin Review

To Mikro Psari Berlin Film Festival - H 2014
Berlin Film Festival

To Mikro Psari Berlin Film Festival - H 2014

Hit-man thriller misses the target.

Somber film noir about an Athens hit man with a day job as a baker is more undercooked farce than Greek tragedy.

BERLIN -- The ongoing Greek financial crisis has been catastrophic for the local economy but a boon to film-makers, who increasingly frame their work as veiled state-of-the-nation commentary. There is certainly a strong socio-political subtext to this noir-ish hit-man thriller from Cyprus-born writer-director Yannis Economides, an official competition entry at the Berlin film festival this week.

Economides won multiple domestic awards for his previous feature, the monochrome crime story Knifer in 2010. Moody and melancholy, Stratos addresses similar thematic terrain but is longer, looser and dangerously low on tension. Further festivals will likely show interest based on the topical subject and director's track record, but commercial prospects will be lukewarm.

Stratos (Vangelis Mourikis) is a lowly middle-aged worker at an Athens bakery with a double life as a hit man, gunning down strangers for a mysterious paymaster called Painter (Yannis Anastasakis). In his shadowy past, Stratos served a long jail sentence for murder, notching up a debt of gratitude to the crime godfather who saved his life in jail, Leonidas (Alekos Pangalos).

Only gradually do the impassive anti-hero's opaque motivations become clear: his assassination payments are helping to finance an audacious plan to tunnel under the prison and free Leonidas. Or so Stratos believes, but the plan implodes when the key players start betraying each other. Meanwhile, he is forced to intervene when his prostitute neighbor Vicky (Vicky Papadopoulou) gets into deep debt with local crime boss Petropoulos (Yorgos Yannopoulos), consenting to a sick scheme involving child rape. If Stratos is to assert any last shred of personal honor in this savagely amoral world, a bloodbath becomes inevitable.

Mourikis has a great face for Stratos, gaunt and sunken-eyed, radiating decades of defeat and regret from every frame. His unshaven hangdog features remain expressionless throughout the film, whatever the emotional weather around him. In the unlikely event of a Hollywood remake, the role could be played by Bruce Willis in one of his more pinched, serious-thesp experiments.

With its cartoonish cast of hit men and hunchback, mobsters and whores, Stratos could have been a thrilling Tarantino-esque riff on classic pulp-fiction tropes. But instead Economides opts for low-key naturalism, dragging out the running time to over two hours, draining away any guilty pleasure and replacing it with somber self-seriousness. His flat shooting style dampens the excitement further, as does the mournful, minimal, Ry Cooder-ish guitar score by Babis Papadopoulos.

The committee-written script is peppered with foulmouthed expletives that eventually become unintentionally funny. It repeatedly stresses parallels between criminal amorality and Greece's current financial woes, but with scant insight or subtlety: "Big fish eat little fish," sneers one minor character after he is caught embezzling, "that's the way it is". Deep stuff, dude.

In his Berlinale press notes, the director describes Stratos as a "Mediterranean film noir", which rings true. But he also calls the film "an existential psycho-cardiogram of speech and silence", which is majestically pretentious drivel. If only Economides had concentrated on the noir elements and left the psycho-cardiograms to trained medical professionals, maybe he would not have delivered such a lifeless corpse of a movie.

Production companies: Faliro House, Match Factory Productions, Feelgood Entertainment, Argonauts
Producers: Christos Konstantakopoulos, Panos Papahadzis, Michael Weber
Cast :Vangelis Mourikis, Petros Zervos, Vicky Papadopoulou, Yannis Tsortekis, Yorgos Yannopoulos, Yannis Anastasakis
Director: Yannis Economides
Screenplay: Yannis Economides, Thanos Xiros, Vangelis Mourikis, Christos Konstantakopoulos, Harry Lagoussis
Cinematographer: Dimitiris Katsaitis
Editor: Yannis Chalkiadakis
Music: Babis Papadopoulos
Sales company: The Match Factory
Unrated, 137 minutes