The Miracle of the Sargasso Sea (To thávma tis thálassas ton Sargassón)
That’s the thing about small towns: everyone falls into their rightful place. So goes the conversation at a dinner party during which tensions foment amongst the disillusioned and despondent residents of Mesolongi, a small town in the west of Greece.
But this town is inherently restless. Its famous eels must migrate away from it to the Sargasso Sea in order to give birth to new life, and director Syllas Tzoumerkas uses this image throughout his latest film to anchor the story in the turmoil of his protagonists, each desperate to find a better life for herself.
Ten years after she has been forced to relocate from a successful career in Athens, the town police chief Elizabeth (Angeliki Papoulia) struggles to deal with the evaporation of her professional ambition and personal life. Dissatisfaction pushes her to long nights of drinking, whilst in the same town Rita (Youla Boudali) juggles two jobs and complicated relationships with her mother and brother in order to survive the mundanities, and later the tragedies, of life here. She cannot find salvation where others might – not in family or religion; not in love or sex.
Rita’s existential turmoil has a loud and distinct voice in the film. Its presence is felt in strange dreams, in religious visions and in a disturbing video recording in which her brother repeatedly asks his distressed sister if she feels like a normal person and if she is scared. These various elements offer an interesting visual alternative to the realism of the feature, but also inject a schizophrenic quality, so that at times the plot seems to lack direction.
Papoulia and Boudali give two visceral performances. In the case of Elizabeth in particular – a deeply troubled protagonist with whom it is often a challenge to sympathise – a sense of her emotional authenticity is important to help the audience to connect. Indeed, the film is heavy with spite, with little to redeem some pretty odious characters who, between them, explore the darkest corners of human capability.
The redeeming feature then must be the beautiful cinematography; close shots that capture the inner angst of these characters, and sweeping landscapes that intersperse moments of quiet amongst the action. Whilst the swampland is a reminder of the oppressive underbelly of this town – saturated with dark secrets – shots of the open and promising sea seem to beckon the protagonists to freedom.
The Miracle of the Sargasso Sea is visually compelling, and a show of great creative ambition from Tzoumerkas. It’s a dark story and at times an uncomfortable watch, but the hope of salvation is ever in the background, salvation for patient eyes.
The Miracle of the Sargasso Sea (To thávma tis thálassas ton Sargassón) does not have a UK release date yet.
Read more reviews from our Berlin Film Festival 2019 coverage here.
For further information about the event visit the Berlin Film Festival website here.
Watch the trailer for The Miracle of the Sargasso Sea (To thávma tis thálassas ton Sargassón) here: