Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Nov 05, 2012 7:43 pm 
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The claustrophobic nightmare of occupation

Italian director Ruggero Dipaola's solid and promising, if not exceptional, first feature is an adaptation of Glenway Wescott's well-known 1945 WWII novel of the same name (only published in Italian in the last decade), shot on the location of the story and in the appropriate languages -- though three of the principal Greek characters are played by Italians, and an Italian version was done as well as a dubbed Greek one (there is dubbing in both versions). When German Captain Kalter (Richard Sammel or Inglorious Basterds) bounces at some length on the Helianos family bed, it means he's going to take over their bedroom, during the wartime Nazi occupation of Athens. And it is not going to be a pleasant experience. It's interesting to compare this tale with the novella of Vercors, clandestinely published in Paris in 1942, Le Silence de la Mer, adapted on film in 1949, the first feature of the great Jean-Pierre Melville. But we'll get to that later.

First of all, the situation here is quite different, because there is a focus conflicts within the Greek family, whose spacious apartment the Captain invades, turning them into his virtual servants. Nikolas Helianos (Gerasimos Skiadaressis) is or was a successful publisher of textbooks. His dutiful wife Zoe is played by the Italian movie star Laura Morante of The Son's Room, who has just debuted as a director with The Cherry on the Cake. There was an older brother, Kimon, who died in combat. They have two remaining children, Alex (Vincenzo Crea), who's twelve, and teenage Leda (Alba De Torrebruna), who has her first period, and looks a little like a very young Dominique Sanda, though her "large head" is commented on unfavorably by her mother. Alex tells her there's a line of men waiting to marry her. The two young newcomers hold their own with the three adult veterans.

The stay chez Helianos of the German officer has two phases. In the first one he has the family wait on him, serve him food, take his coat when he comes in, change his bedpan, and use the lavatory in the courtyard while he takes over exclusive use of the bathroom in the flat. He favors Leda, stroking her cheek and hair and complimenting her, and she seems enamored of him at first, or of his uniform, as her mother explains it. He dislikes Alex, who eats some meat scraps he's supposed to take to his commanding officer's dog, and the Captain whips him with his belt. The parents cower and argue. Only Alex seems to preserve some dignity and remain unwilling to collaborate.

Phase two begins when the captain goes away for two weeks. The family rejoices and goes back to eating at the dinner table, the parents to sleeping in their bedroom. When Kalter returns, now a major, he is changed, due to bad news back home whose nature we learn later. He now has no appetite and seems initially humbler, treading Nikola more like an equal, drinking and discussing life with him, eventually no longer always in uniform. But this seeming relaxation is insidious and misleading. He is deeply embittered and becomes stranger, knocking down Leda and accusing her of an unnatural attachment to him. His intimacy with the enemy visitor alienates Nikola from his wife, who's not included in it, but also proves dangerous. It hardly matters whether Kalter's unwilling hosts fraternize or remain aloof: it's a no-win situation. The oppressive mood is palpable and the action suspenseful.

Vercors story is more subtle, its action more understated. It focuses on two things. First is the brave, stoical, silent resistance of the old Frenchman and his niece, who never agree to speak to the German officer staying in their house, despite his long daily speeches to them in impeccable French. The other more detailed focus is on the gradually shattered illusions of the officer. He is a great lover of all things Gallic and a would-be composer. He expounds upon his dream that a victorious German culture will blend with the French and improve both. But after a trip away, like Kalter, but in his case to Paris, he comes to understand that the Third Reich only wants to crush everything in its wake, including French culture. His idealistic, then disillusioned, speeches to his unwilling and silent hosts are haunting. Eventually he goes off to what he knows is his doom. Since Kalter also declares himself above all a lover of music and is also deeply changed by a trip away from his unwilling hosts, Le Silence de la Mer and Wescott's story have a structural similarity. But Vercors was attempting something more hopeful, while Wescott's novel expanded on an anecdote told him by a Greek resistance fighter.

Dipaola achieves the requisite solemnity and quiet horror with a slow even pace and use of almost-sepia images shot by Vladan Radovic. The quiet outdoor scenes with their lonely playing children evoke Cartier-Bresson or Clément's Forbidden Games. The actors are good and the film does its job, but Apartment in Athens lacks magic -- or Wescott's beautiful prose. The screenplay was co-written by Dipaola with Luca de Benedittis and Heidrun Schleef. The latter did the screenplay for The Son's Room.

Appartamento ad Atene, 95mn, in Greek and German, has been shown in a number of festivals, starting in fall 2011, and was released in Italy Sept. 28, 2012. Screened for this review as part of the San Francisco Film Society's Nov. 11-18, 2012 New Italian Cinema series, with showings Thur., Nov. 15 at 6:15 pm and Sat., Nov. 17 at 9:15 pm at Landmark’s Embarcadero Cinema, San Francisco.

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