“International” cinema lately has been dominated by action-dramas from China, lush films from Mexico, and dry comedies from Scandinavia (as well as the usual French and English imports).
As for the Greeks, well, Theo Angelopolous was honored at last year’s Telluride film festival. Except for him, even dedicated cinephiles might have trouble naming another Greek director (no fair counting Canadian-born Nia “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” Vardalos).
But here’s a new one whose work you’ll finally have a chance to see: Penny Panayotopoulou.
Fly Me To the Moon
Hard Goodbyes: My Father is told from the perspective of 10-year-old Elias (Giorgos Karayannis). He lives with his parents and his older brother in Athens. It is 1969, and Elias, like so many boys his age that year, is fascinated by space travel.
His dad (Stelios Mainas) is a traveling salesman. He always brings Elias a chocolate bar when he returns, but Elias would rather have his dad just stay home.
The day comes when Elias’ father does not return home (I’ve promised not to say more, but the title of the film lets me say at least this much). And while the rest of the family copes in a natural-seeming way, Elias retreats into denial and imagination. He gives new meaning to the upcoming moon landing, beyond the fancies of flying through space. It will be the time when he will be allowed to go on a business trip, as promised, to the moon with his father.
That’s not to say that life is purely fantastical for Elias. The other boys at school continue to tease him, and his mother and brother often get frustrated with Elias’ delusions. Luckily he has his uncle/godfather Theodosius (Christos Stergioglou), who is just distant enough to love Elias like family without the friction of living under the same roof.
Mind of a Boy
If the plot of a movie is what happens, then Hard Goodbyes doesn’t have much plot. What it has instead is an observant eye toward the mind of a ten-year-old boy under duress.
Karayannis is good as Elias, but not groundbreakingly so. Panayotopoulou helps out by directing his character well. Instead of subtle closeups, she lets his boyishness come through in conversations with classmates, fights with his older brother, and tantrums thrown in front of his mother. In times of stress he’ll fold up against a wall and just count.
Panayotopoulou also adds some texture to the film with some fitting, if conventional, subtexts. In addition to the repeated objects and words of Elias’ father, Panayotopoulou finds fitting passages from Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon. What she presents on the night of the actual moon landing is wonderfully understated.
Space Age Mysteries Explained
Hard Goodbyes is well produced. The era is captured in hairstyles, clothing, and cars. The effect isn’t perfect — one storefront (seen for less than 10 seconds) looks a little too stagey, and, to be completely honest, some of dad’s merchandise looks a little faked. But it’s easy to get lost in the time and place, to become the ten-year-old boy growing up in the space age with that annoying, know-it-all older brother.
And yet, somehow, Hard Goodbyes fails to spark the imagination in that all-important intangible way that makes you want to see the movie over and over. Perhaps it’s that last year’s The Return — also about a ten-year-old boy’s relationship with his father — was so much better, so much deeper and mysterious. In comparison, Hard Goodbyes explains and resolves too much. That is an odd thing to say about a movie whose ending is a near-mythical image worthy of Jules Verne, but there you have it.
Well Well Well
Hard Goodbyes is not perfect, nor is it exciting or fresh. But it is a good drama. It’s well-crafted, well acted, and very well directed.
And for supporters of Greek cinema it’s a must-see.