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Close-Up on Babis Makridis's "Pity"

The Greek director's second film intimately navigates the state of the fragile male ego with merciless aplomb.
Beatrice Loayza
Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Babis Makridis's Pity (2018), which is receiving an exclusive global online premiere on MUBI, is showing from January 11 – February 9, 2019 as a Special Discovery.
The bone-dry humor and flat affect that characterize the informal movement known as the “Greek Weird Wave” finds—somehow—even bleaker expression in Babis Makridis’s Pity, in which a nameless father and lawyer (Yannis Drakopoulos) becomes addicted to unhappiness while mourning his comatose wife. Equipped with the stilted language of Efythmis Filippou, Yorgos Lanthimos’s co-writer for practically every one of his films prior to this year’s The Favourite, Pity is a deceptively low-key entry into a national arthouse cinema distinguished by the work of Lanthimos and Athina Rachel Tsangari. Makridis’s second feature film is not a sweeping work so much as one with a fixed target: Pity intimately navigates the state of the fragile male ego with merciless aplomb.
The film opens to a low angle shot of a garage opening slowly to the blue expanse of sky and sea outside our protagonist’s apartment. Bent over at the corner of his bed in his pajamas, the man weeps. A series of cryptic black title cards, used throughout the film to punctuate the events with the protagonist’s inner thoughts, precede a neighbor who appears at the door offering the man and his motherless son the usual orange cake with her condolences. “The expression people adopt when they feel pity for someone is an expression that is hard for them to replicate,” the first card reads. The neighbor, a dry cleaner, and a client all seem to form part of a routine for the man, as he makes his rounds performing sadness, gobbling up each awkward interaction as a crescendo of classical music mirrors his emotional crest, providing a fleeting sense of plenitude and satisfaction with each encounter, each sufficiently depressing moment. The title cards, which range from the straightforward to the poetically ambiguous, pair with the barrage of attention-seeking pity that lace his daily exploits to form the small-minded tit-for-tat reasoning of the man while ridiculing his increasingly unhinged behavior.
With its mordant humor, its interest in the often cruel relationship between humans and animals, and the brief but poignant examination of it’s protagonist’s sexless sexuality, the parallels between Pity and similar contemporary Greek art films are obvious. That the film’s rigidly dour mood stems directly from its limited attachment to the purview of our protagonist, rather than a generalized phenomenon, differentiates Makridis’s approach. “It’s not appropriate to play cheerful melodies, while we are going through this nightmare,” the man scolds his pianist son. What follows is perhaps the absurdist high point of the film, in which the man performs a vampiric, self-composed elegiac song in honor of his wife, situating himself and his sadness yet again as the dominant performative thrust of the narrative. Meanwhile a heavy non-diegetic musical accompaniment comes crashing in like a massive black storm cloud, leaking over and infecting the scenes of domestic routine that follow, with a gravitas so self-serious it dips into the ironic.
A turning point in the film throws dad off balance—with his wife newly revived at home, what’s left to pity? Turns out pity is more a life source than a responsive attitude, which has our protagonist working swiftly to restore some of the melancholy that the reality of his wife’s recovery can no longer justify: he demands his neighbor’s orange cake, replaces the dining room painting of calm ocean waters beyond boats settled peacefully ashore with a black and white image of a ship in the throes of a tumultuous storm. He feels nostalgic for the cathartic tears he was so accustomed to entertaining, and finds solace in the embrace of a pepper gas cloud. The ludicrous reaches new heights as the man struggles for the beloved equilibrium of pity that saw him as an immediate object of concern and tender offerings. Absent the pleasure of emotional devastation, not necessarily felt, but wielded as source of power, the man rebels, first by leaving his family dog stranded in the sea for dead, and next in an act of treachery that sees yet more nefarious ends. Neither of these pity-manufacturing attempts, you could imagine, will yield the desired results.
The protagonist’s father, a lax figure, relatively unconcerned with his son’s histrionics lends him an ear: “My hair has gone white.” The son offers his head, citing the stress of coping with his wife’s uncertain state through trembling lips. “Your hair hasn’t gone white at all,” the father observes, “It’s all in your head.” While not explicitly in conversation with Greek politics, contemporary Greek cinema’s rooted sense of alienation and its thematic skepticism of the the nuclear family and of normative romantic relationships, betrays at least an unconscious response to domestic issues. It’s not just circumstantial that the country’s continuous state of economic uncertainty and the resulting social environment should breed artists that seek to represent the agitation evident in homes and on the streets. The rise of Greece’s ultranationalist, far-right political party, the Golden Dawn, should be alarming evidence of the fact that not only are people worried—they’re indignant. If Greece’s growing public disdain for the non-white other is anything like the rise of the Tea Party in the United States, than there’s something to be said about the toxic men at the frontlines of protest, clamoring for visibility of their suffering, often resorting to violent means in order to reinstate their sense of self. Delusion or not, Pity’s distressing finale plays like a natural, albeit extreme extension of inward-looking men acting out in response to a perceived misbalance. Offering a relief from the material burdens of politics, Pity, like the best of the “weird wave,” provides a fictionalization that bears all the disturbing and cruel marks of reality, but makes certain to pin the joke directly on the clown.


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