ASTORIA – Miss Violence, a shattering 2013 Greek film about evil lurking in modern urban life, directed, written and produced by Alexander Avranas, made its U.S. premier at Panorama Europe – A Festival of New European Films of the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria on April 12.
The skill of Avranas, who won the Silver Lion for Best Director at the 70th Venice International Film Festival, goes beyond evoking the traditional suspension of disbelief among his viewers – he makes them complicit in the very mass denial with which he charges society at large. Despite one of the most shocking opening scenes in contemporary cinema, the deft script and superb actors persuade viewers that what they are seeing is simply the portrait of a dysfunctional family under stress.
The family is introduced in its habitat, a pleasant if cramped Athens apartment, while it celebrates the birthday of 11 year-old Angeliki.
Viewers are immediately struck by lack of joy in the child’s face, and the complete absence of friends. Pretty and apparently intelligent, she should have plenty.
As members of the “family” – their backs to Angeliki and the camera – gather around the cake and light the candles while singing Greek version of happy birthday, Nahis chronia polla – live many years, Angeliki is ominously walking towards the balcony.
The sad but sweet-looking girl lifts her legs over the balcony ledge and surrenders to gravity. Only then does someone ask “where’s Angeliki?”
Through the well-drawn domestic scenes of the everyday and of coping with a sudden tragedy, viewers are sucked into believing the party line – perhaps this is also social and political commentary on crisis-ridden Greece – that a terrible accident had occurred.
Child welfare officials undertake their peremptory investigation, but their edginess suggests they know more about what is going on than is revealed. “We understand what you are going through; We are here for you,” they say to the parents.
Scenes with Angeliki’s teachers make a similar accusation of expedience/indifference.
Eleni Roussinou hauntingly portrays Eleni, Angeliki’s catatonic mother, whose only talent appears to be having children she can’t possibly cope with. It is revealed that she is pregnant again, generating scenes that illustrate the wider corruption in Greek society as favors of officials are requested and paid for.
Also in the apartment are Angeliki’s younger sister and brother, Alkmini (seven year old Kalliopi Zontanou) and Filippos (ten year old Konstantinos Athanasiades), and Eleni’ own younger sister, whose life becomes the vehicle for revealing the truths Angeliki could no longer bear.
One review of the film notes that the latter wore a smile on her face in the harrowing God’s Eye View shot of her broken and bloody body lying on the marble pavement.
The scene recalls to mind Dostoyevsky’s declaration: “No Divine plan is worth the tears of an eight year-old girl.”
The hints of the darkness that lurks include the audience’s confusion about the relationships among the children and between them and the adults, and the nature and source of the evil are not clear.
The father (Themis Panou, who won the Volpi Cup for Best Actor at Venice) is the linchpin of the drama. At first, he is calm about what happened. Some might conclude that his profession – he is a retired accountant – has trained him to rapidly take stock of situation and quickly put things back in order.
But Avranas fires up ambivalence with a poignant scene of his breaking down and crying
Another audience misdirection by the masterful director was put to double use as commentary on Greece’s crushing austerity. Viewers sympathize with him as a victim of Greece’s economic depression and austerity measures, enduring a brutal boss paying him 530 euros for full-time work.
One does not know what to make of the stone faced but seemingly caring mother-grandmother played by Reni Pittaki.
The audience doubtlessly gives her a pass for punishing a mildly misbehaving child with a slap in the face. It seemed like an understandable lapse given the situation, but the true reality was far more horrific.
The hints get stronger and more disturbing. When the father tried to keep Eleni’s younger sister Myrto (Sissy Toumasi) in the apartment one day, she sliced her palm – it was the first blood shown since the shot of the Angelike’s dead body.
At one point Myrto accuses her mother. “Your whole life you don’t want to see anything…it’s all your fault.”
Viewers also became a bit queasy during the scene when the father was watching Angelike’s younger sister dance, and during the Q & A Avranas said he meant for viewers to know that both the little girl and the little boy were at risk – from the father, who not only molested but prostituted his children.
In the end, the mother does take action, but when she says “close the door,” on the grisly scene, it is not clear whether she has finally liberated them, or has taken over as the warden-slavemaster.
Critics and filmgoers alike associate Miss Violence, which was co-presented by the Consulate General of Greece and the Onassis Foundation (USA) at the Museum, with other recent Greek films such as Attenberg and Dogtooth, which have been labelled “Greek Weird Wave.”
The Economist notes that “In a climate of doom and apprehension, these three films share an appealingly macabre sensibility.”
Avranas does not consider himself to be part of the New Weird Wave, however. “We know each other, but we are not a family.” He was much more influence by Theodoros Angelopoulos’ early films.
He emphasized that Miss Violence focuses on concrete and serious issues, not limited only to Greek society.
During the Q & A that followed the screening, he said the film was ripped not from Greek, but from German headlines in 2010, a story that so shook him up that quickly wrote a first draft.
He said the final script, co-authored with Kostas Peroulis, was the product of working with the actors, and that included discussions with the child actors and their parents.
“We told them everything,” Avranas said, “I explained why the film is necessary, and that it was going to help other children. We showed them the film without the sex scenes and they were very satisfied with it.”
He said he feels a strong sense of responsibility for the issues he makes films about, and he feels he must be very precise in how he presents them, saying “I am not trying to shock people.”
He did not have a personal experience with the issues in Miss Violence, so he made sure to include conversations with psychologist in his research, but he said of such situations “Everybody knows but nobody speaks. It is time for everyone to know,” he said.
Roussinou said it was very important that Avranas had them living together in the apartment, cooking, cleaning, etc. like a family. When she was asked about her stunning performance, she replied “I don’t know how I did it…I studied a lot,” and said she was inspired by all the women who suffer at the hands of such tyrants.