Featuring: Ewen Leslie, William Zappa, Marton Csokas, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Yigal Naor, Jean-François Balmer, Françoise Lebrun, Thanos Samaras, Danae Skiadi
Director: Tony Krawitz
Writer: Louise Fox (screenplay adapted from Christos Tsiolkas’ 2005 novel)
Australian release date: 15 November, 2012
Reviewer: Karen (one-word verdict: grim)
[Synopsis paraphrased from Dead Europe website]
Following the death of his father in Sydney, photographer Isaac (Ewen Leslie) takes the ashes back to his ancestral homeland, Greece. On a trip to his parent’s village, he learns something of his father’s cursed history. At first he dismisses the revelation as superstitious nonsense, but over the course of his travels – from Greece to Paris to Budapest – he is forced to confront the anti-Semitism of the past, the embedded bigotry in the bones of Europe and the nature of inherited guilt.
It’s a familiar story: the second generation migrant child returns to Europe to reconnect with their parents’ roots, with the upshot frequently being that they are charmed to the point of bewilderment. Why did their parents leave this Greek/Italian/Croatian paradise? Anyone who has delved into this fascinating question knows the emigrants have reasons that are varied and valid. They might be economic refugees seeking a better life in a new country, or cultural misfits, or inspired by a sense of adventure. In a few cases, they might have darker motivations.
As its name suggests, Dead Europe is not a celebration of European culture, nor a travelogue of its scenic beauties. The story at its heart is that of Vassily, who dies at the beginning, after an economic but rich expository montage of short scenes. Isaac, his son (Ewen Leslie), goes on an ashes-scattering mission to Greece. It’s his first time in the old country, and his vocation as a photographer takes him handily off the beaten track to scrutinise and record the faces of people on the streets. And what seedy streets they are. Not for Isaac the Parthenon or the Plaka; no, he wanders the suburbs of tenements among the underclass of unemployed youth and miserable refugees, noting with his camera, like a modern-day William Blake, “marks of weakness, marks of woe”.
He meets his cousin and encounters more strands of a family secret about his father. Vassily was supposedly cursed. Our strapping modern Australian, contemptuous of his mother’s efforts to protect him from the evil eye with talismans and garlic, finds superstition well entrenched in old Europe, and that’s not the worst of it. The Holocaust continues to cast its long, evil shadow – this is somehow linked to the mystery around his father – and has a modern incarnation in a growing hatred of Muslims. Isaac encounters a young refugee, Josef (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who seems to offer him a chance of redemption for the as-yet-unclear sins of his father, but the chance slips away when he loses track of him.
Isaac tries repeatedly to phone his brother Nico in Budapest, but eventually travels with his cousin and her friend to his father’s village, and after a harrowing encounter with a witch and more unsettling revelations about the curse, he pours out the ashes alone. Then he travels to Paris in response to an email from a friend of his father’s, and again, after an obligatory establishing shot, we see a side of Paris that is more akin to the ugly Barcelona of Inarritu’s Biutiful than to Woody Allen’s pretty Rome or Paris.
Isaac learns only a little more about the wartime experience of his father that is central to the mystery, and is expected to help a young Muslim refugee get to Australia. It’s not at all clear what kind of help Isaac could give, and anyway, after he angrily challenges the young woman on her appalling assertions about Jews – “they ritually kill children” – they attract the attention of the gendarmes, and she is taken into custody.
Now Isaac goes to Budapest, where the ugliness of Europe’s blood-drenched history of superstition and religious and racial hatred finds expression in a grim trade – sexual slave trafficking. Nico (Martin Csokas) has hit rock bottom here: he’s using and you sense he’s not long for this world. Somehow he knows the whole story about Vassily, and he reveals it to Isaac, who proceeds to seek redemption in a denouement that is psychologically and dramatically satisfying.
This is bleak viewing, with roots in classical tragedy and the Old Testament. I also thought of Henry James, who so often worked through the theme of the vigorous, moralistic and naive folk from the New World encountering not so much the beauty and richness of European culture as its ugly venal cunning and potential evil – but here the encounter is not with customs around love, marriage and money but with the full horror of historical evil.
The storytelling is economical to a fault. Much of what Isaac learns is either withheld from him or told on the whim of other characters, and his consequent descent into despair feels somewhat forced. Neither the dialogue nor plot points are always believable; for example, the re-encounter with Josef. Finally, I’m not sure how Isaac’s sexuality was relevant, except perhaps to establish that he wasn’t a paedophile.
Nevertheless, this film has undeniable power, although it is relentlessly focused on the eponymous theme and offers little in the way of truly redemptive or contrasting options. I haven’t read the original novel by Christos Tsiolkas (of The Slap fame) but understand from an old review by Robert Manne that the story here is substantially different. The film distills major ideas and leaves little time for the characters to establish sympathetic and believable transitions or for audience to reflect on what they are seeing.
So I’m going to make a leap here and suggest that this story is bigger than an 84-minute film. A television series would have served it better, with Vassily’s tale having its own space in the drama rather than being told piecemeal by various reluctant informants, and with Isaac’s literal and metaphoric journey given some breathing room and context.
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