The setting is contemporary Athens, though there are none of its wonderful sights to behold. Here, we are in a grey and anonymous apartment building that could be in almost any city in Europe. In fact, the film rarely ventures out of the apartment and when it does, we’d rather have stayed at home. One factor that keeps it firmly anchored in Greece is the theme of unemployment and welfare benefits. However, the current economic climate and its effects on your typical Athenian household is not what this film is about.
The opening scene is in the family apartment. It’s unclear who’s who at this point, but it appears to be a mother and father, their daughter Eleni (Eleni Roussinou) and four grandchildren. It’s Angeliki’s eleventh birthday. She stands alongside her grandfather, unsmiling as her photo is taken with a Polaroid camera, blows out the candles and then steps out onto the balcony. She gives a knowing smile to the camera and then jumps. At the police station, the girl’s pregnant mother and grandfather are interrogated by social services about possible reasons for Angeliki’s suicide: problems at school? Bullying? Problems at home? The mother’s response is total ignorance of any issues and certainly not violence in the home. Not much later we see granny giving her daughter a violent slap and this certainly won’t be the last.
The film leaves the audience wondering about the grandfather. We know that he is violent and runs the house according to bizarre and cruel rules. But is he the grandfather or the father to all these children? Is the grandmother a victim or a perpetrator of abuse, or both? As the film progresses, we see this manipulative man act convincingly as the concerned parent and loving grandfather, fooling everyone but his family. We see him meet up with a friend, who worryingly claims that they have no secrets from one another. And we see him do a whole lot of other things to and with his children and grandchildren.
Giorgios Lanthimos’s disturbing Dogtooth and Lukas Moodysson’s heartbreaking Lilya 4-Ever (which showed here in Venice in 2002) both depict abusive families and abused children, but this film is not on a par with them. Panou is chillingly believable as the father and the other cast members all put in good performances. The problem lies partly in the holes in the script (a teacher not offering the correct help to the younger daughter Myrto and an inept and perfunctory social services team, the woman looking like a Nazi in a WWII movie) but more significantly in its depiction of abuse that is both manipulative and, at times, unwatchable. Whilst being a technically competent film with a great cast Avranas’s attempt at dealing with incest and child abuse nevertheless remains an ill-judged and highly unpalatable piece of filmmaking.