Greeks Bearing Change, Badly

03/07/2012 4:00 AM |

Attenberg
Directed by Athina Rachel Tsangari

This latest addition to the Greek New Wave is about the future—specifically, Greece’s unpreparedness for it. News reports have detailed that country’s economic troubles, but this film explores some of their underlying causes, digging into cultural generalizations in a way journalism can’t. Ariane Labed starts as Bella, an awkward twentysomething maladjusting to society as her father dies from an unspecified ailment. She is sexually inexperienced—the first scene features some of the least erotic making out in movie history, as she attempts to learn kissing from her best and only friend, played by Evangelia Randou—but she’s also generally socially ignorant. Writer-director Athina Rachel Tsangari codes her as a child: she skips arm-in-arm with her biffle; they spit out of windows onto the street below and imitate wild beasts. (Bella and her father enjoy David Attenborough nature specials; the film takes its name from a Greek mispronunciation of his name, a twisting of the naturalist as Bella is a twisted bit of nature.)

Yorgos Lanthimos, the Greek New Wave’s breakout director (who produced this film and makes his acting debut in it as a love interest), might have left the film there: an obtuse, gently surreal, and mysteriously allegorical character study. But Tsangari—though she shares Lanthimos’ preternatural cool, his kind of monotone (she produced both his films)—is after something more concrete; Attenberg is an historical and economic critique of contemporary Greece’s headline-grabbing domestic problems. Bella stands in for a new generation, one uniquely unprepared to inherit the country. Tsangari presents Bella’s peculiarities as a failure of custodianship: “I leave you in the hands of a new century without having taught you anything,” her father laments. (There’s a subplot about cremation rights that underscores Greece’s failure to plan for the future: despite limited space, the Orthodox church doesn’t allow its members to be cremated; instead, they’re buried for three years—until worms eat their bodies—then exhumed and relocated so the grave can be reused.) Attenberg feels almost like a Rosetta stone for Lanthimos’ impenetrable movies. Now that you think of it, couldn’t his Dogtooth and the upcoming Alps both be said to be about young Greeks who’re poorly prepared by their parents to take responsibility for the country? It might be the central theme in Greece’s recent crop of art films.

Opens March 9 at IFC Center