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GOCRITIC! Karlovy Vary 2019

GoCritic! Review: Zizotek

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- A tender Greek drama about broken families and emerging human connections

GoCritic! Review: Zizotek
August Lambrou-Negrepontis in Zizotek

Greek director Vardis Marinakis, whose compelling debut Black Field [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Vardis Marinakis
film profile
]
(2009) premiered at Karlovy Vary a full decade ago, returns to the festival’s East of the West competition with adventurous drama Zizotek [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Vardis Marinakis
film profile
]
. Dealing with issues of abandonment, relationships and communication, this belated sophomore project suffers from some scriptwriting issues but powerful performances from the two principal actors make for an engaging and affecting experience. Further European festival play is likely, while in its native Greece it may find exposure on the country's limited number of arthouse screens.

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The film opens on nine-year-old Jason (an outstanding performance by first-time actor August Lambrou-Negrepontis) who largely fends for himself in an apartment he shares with his somewhat distant mother Eva (Pinelopi Tsilika). Having evidently carefully planned her vanishing-act, she takes her son to a professional photographer for a session of snaps before abruptly departing the scene at a summer folk-festival in northern Greece.

Left only with his small backpack and the very last picture taken at the session – upon which his mother has scrawled some empty, impersonal well-wishing words – Jason eventually finds refuge in a cabin in the middle of a forest. It turns out that this shack belongs to Minas (impressive work from Dimitris Xanthopoulos) – a withdrawn and anti-social middle-aged man who has taken a vow of silence. Minas' initial solution is to return Jason to his neighbourhood in the city, but circumstances lead them to grow closer and eventually form a relationship that has all the characteristics of a warm and loving family – something neither of them has truly experienced before.

Both lead characters are three-dimensionally constructed, despite Minas not saying a single word for the entire duration of the film. Xanthopoulos nevertheless manages to express the entirety of Minas’ pain, sorrow and mistrust with merely his eyes and posture. The character of Eva, however, feels underwritten: her motives for abandoning her child remain puzzling and unclear. We know nothing about her past, nor her future – except for one ambiguous sequence, where Minas tracks her down, only to find her working in a brothel.

Her actions leave us wondering about the motivation lying behind such a heartless desertion – whether there is drug use, depression or some other mental illness involved – and this results in an otherwise powerful film lacking important context. Instead we mostly get to see her through the boy's vivid dreams and Minas’ voyeuristic gaze upon finding her in a mysterious room, engaged in a disturbing sexual situation.

The beginning of Zizotek is characterised by dizzying, hand-held camera movements that suggest Eva’s inner distress as she dances to folk music – surrounded by other people from nearby villages – before running to catch a train towards a destination unknown. Proceedings settle down once Eva leaves the picture, however. And as Jason wanders around (somewhat independent for his tender age, but still profoundly vulnerable in such a detached world of adults) searching for his parent, it is possible to draw some parallels to the work of late Greek master Theo Angelopoulos. His epic tale of two young siblings looking for their non-existent father in Landscape in the Mist (1988) comes especially to mind.

Once unfortunate developments finally bring Jason and Minas together, the story told in Zizotek (the offbeat title a made-up code-word relating to the older man's refugee-trafficking operation) turns into a touching tale about two lonely individuals yearning for deeper human connection who form a powerful bond. There is an undertone of profound sadness and anguish present in the character of Minas, who slowly starts coming back to life after taking on responsibility for Jason's welfare.

The actors have undeniable chemistry that exudes fondness and affection even in the most quiet, non-verbal scenes. Unfortunately some underdeveloped subplots by Marinakis and his collaborator Spiros Krimbalis undercut the film's numerous merits and ultimately result in a work which falls short of its considerable potential. Nevertheless, the film’s fairy-tale ending, which takes a turn towards the fantastical, closes the story on a strong note.

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