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Berlinale 2019: The Miracle of the Sargasso Sea

Reviewed by Simon Ramshaw.

Director Syllas Tzoumerkas
Length 122 mins
Rating ********--
Filmmaking: 4  Personal enjoyment: 4

Photo from the article To say that Syllas Tzoumerkas’ The Miracle of the Sargasso Sea is a disorientating film isn’t really doing it the justice it deserves. It’s a deliberate, often hilarious, and sometimes hilariously horrible cinematic experience that sets out to constantly wrongfoot the audience, lulling them into a false sense of security. Nothing can truly prepare you for how the film navigates its own plot, which isn’t quite as complicated or absurd as it may appear in the baffling first hour. The ironic absurdism is so complex and labyrinthine that its closest cousin is probably a late-era Lars von Trier film.

If none of the above sounds good to you, there’s a strong chance you won’t enjoy Sargasso Sea’s straight-faced musings on…well, everything and nothing. The first ten minutes play like a big city crime-thriller less in the vein of Heat (1995) and more of Den of Thieves (2018). It then undergoes a transformation into an oddball backwater drama set in the marshy Greek town of Messolonghi, where our distinctly abrasive anti-heroine Elizabeth (Yorgos Lanthimos regular Angeliki Papoulia) has been stagnating as the police chief for a whole decade. This hard-drinking, coke-snorting cop isn’t the only thing stagnating, however. The small tow gradually reveals a whole lot of hatred and evil bubbling up to the surface, after entire lifetimes of abuse and resentment.

It’s not the happiest fare in the world, to put things lightly. In fact, the film is so deeply tied to its narrative of pure, unadulterated evil that there are solid comparisons to be made with Twin Peaks: The Return (2017), not just in terms of the “is-this-going-to-go-anywhere?” pacing, but also in its pitiless view of human beings’ propensity towards making others suffer. If the deliberate pacing doesn’t switch you off, the film’s nosedive into Dogme 95-style extremity might be what eventually pushes you over the edge. Make no mistake: this is a tough film, in various senses of the word, but its rewards are strangely satisfying. Indeed, by the time the film rolls towards its (slightly obvious) conclusion, everything, at least in terms of the basic narrative, makes some sort of sense.

The film also boasts a completely unhinged ensemble, firing on all cylinders to make the more graphic displays of sex and violence more palatable. Particular praise should be given to Angeliki Papoulia’s bitter dirty cop - she’s having a lot of fun straddling the line between Harvey Keitel’s bad lieutenant and Nicolas Cage’s bad lieutenant, insulting those around her with savage indifference. She’s the rotten core of the film, and yet, equal praise is due for her counterpart, Rita, captivatingly portrayed by Youla Boudali. Boudali here possesses a rare sense of vulnerability; each anxious gaze is like a raw, exposed nerve, frightened of even the slightest ounce of attention. She does wonders, it has to be said, with a role that is distinctly less showy than Papoulia’s.

These performances are certainly what stop Tzoumerkas’ film from completely floating away into its own chaotic dimension, but that inconsistency is part of what makes Sargasso Sea such an interesting work. It’s a cinematic puzzle box of fascinating mechanisms; it looks easy to solve one in one moment, and then impenetrable the next. The fact that it doesn’t commit fully to its own lunacy is an act of lunacy in itself. If the film earns a release beyond the festival circuit, seek it out, try and solve it - and get back to us if you do.

You can read our exclusive interview with Tzoumerkas here

This review was published on February 15, 2019.

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