Syllas Tzoumerkas’ third film is as slippery as the eels that form its backbone. It’s intense, brutal and surprising – full of strange asides and meandering paths, held together by the suffocating setting of Mesolongi, characterised here as a swampy Greek backwater.
The Miracle of the Sargasso Sea turns on the collision course between exiled Athenian police chief Elisabeth (Angeliki Papoulia) and cowed eel hatchery worker Rita (co-writer Youla Boudali). Tzoumerkas has described these polar opposites as linked by their inability to find the right words. Elisabeth’s dialogue is a spat cluster of obscenities; Rita, when she speaks at all, does so in visions, letting us into a Lynchian dreamscape filled with religious allegories.
Both are captivating. Papoulia, in particular, has an extraordinarily malleable face, shifting from compassionate openness to a slamming door in an instant. Each takes on the quality of the migrating eels in her own way, opening her eyes wider to her mental prison, even costumed in black leather and shiny metallics as the transformation builds. The men around them are a motley crew of patriarchal politics, damaged dreamer Manolis (Christos Passalis) reflecting every facet as he tries to tighten the grip on his sister Rita but loosens his own on reality.
Tzoumerkas’ vision isn’t overly optimistic, but it’s also not fatalistic or moralising. Police brutality, sexual abuse and other acts of violence aren’t treated clinically, but they are handled as facts. The small-town mentality – “where potential goes to die”, as he’s described it – is largely universal. But the clash of cynically resigned humour against anti-authoritarian rebellion is distinctly Greek. Perhaps that’s the common cultural thread of the so-called ‘weird wave’ – to revel in human absurdity even while extending understanding to it.
The Miracle of the Sargasso Sea is painful viewing, but the note of hope that it holds – that with the right trigger, it could be possible to escape being bred in a tank and gutted alive – makes it nigh unmissable.
CAST: Angeliki Papoulia, Youla Boudali, Christos Passalis, Christian Culbida
DIRECTOR: Syllas Tzoumerkas
WRITERS: Syllas Tzoumerkas, Youla Boudali
SYNOPSIS: After a terrorist bust, troubled police chief Elisabeth (Papoulias) is exiled to Mesolongi. As her mental health spirals, her life starts to intertwine with an eel hatchery worker (Boudali) under the manipulative grip of her patriarchal brother (Passalis).