“How much pleasure did you take as a kid, Lasher said, in imagining yourself dead?” “Never mind as a kid,” Grappa said. “I still do it all the time. Whenever I’m upset over something, I imagine all my friends, relatives and colleagues gathered at my bier. They are very, very sorry they weren't nicer to me while I lived. Self-pity is something I've worked very hard to maintain. Why abandon it just because you grow up? Self-pity is something that children are very good at, which must mean it is natural and important. Imagining yourself dead is the cheapest, sleaziest, most satisfying form of childish self-pity. How sad and remorseful and guilty all those people are, standing by your great bronze coffin. They can't even look each other in the eye because they know that the death of this decent and compassionate man is the result of a conspiracy they all took part in. The coffin is banked with flowers and lined with a napped fabric in salmon or peach. What wonderful cross-currents of self-pity and self-esteem you are able to wallow in, seeing yourself laid out in a dark suit and tie, looking tanned, fit and rested, as they say of presidents after vacations. But there is something even more childish and satisfying than self-pity, something that explains why I try to see myself dead on a regular basis, a great fellow surrounded by sniveling mourners. It is my way of punishing people for thinking their own lives are more important than mine.”
—Don DeLillo, White Noise
At the apex of the Greek New Wave, a legion of filmmakers emerged from the Hellenic peninsula. Since the Golden Age of the Greek cinema had exhausted itself, new works trickled in at a steady pace, and as the debutants washed up by the Wave made the full circle of development-production-post-production, they are returning to the slightly faded spotlight of the national cinema. Babis Makridis belongs among the latest Greek directors to make a comeback with a feature project.
Makridis emerged, for better or worse, in the shadow of the New Greek Wave poster-boy Yorgos Lanthimos (Makridis is thanked in the credits of Dogtooth and Alps). His debut, laconically titled L, is a quintessential Greek New Wave offering, according to the ill-conceived label coined as the “Weird Wave.” However, pigeonholing Makridis’ film as weird along with the works of Lanthimos or Athina Rachel Tsangari does more damage than justice (“I would like to think that my movie is more poetic than ‘weird,’” retorted Makridis when asked whether the label was an accurate characterization). Makridis honed his own brand of absurd and deadpan style by brushing shoulders with, yet not aping, his two peers at the forefront of the wave.
The vehicle-bound film L sees a protagonist living in a car and being captivated by other means of transport as well. The storytelling remains fairly minimalistic as does the almost cryptic dialog, the narrative form indebted to Samuel Beckett. “I love the simplicity of his writing. He does not use literary tricks. His language is simple, minimalist but effective. With this simplicity he manages to reach deep into the human soul and human despair. This is the cinema that I like. The cinema that does not use cinematic gimmicks,” revealed Makridis in 2012, when L was making the rounds on the international festival circuit. The Theatre of the Absurd presents more succinct and relevant reference, as well as being the logical aesthetic progenitor (thus, the Wave should be Absurd rather than Weird).
The crucial strands of Makridis’ style of minimalism, the deadpan, and the absurd converged again in his sophomore feature, less laconically titled Pity. Even though L was co-written by Lanthimos’ regular writing partner, Efthymis Filippou, who collaborated on Pity, the dark humor did not bleed through the former film as it does in the latter, contaminating the story with bleakness unseen in the first Makridis-Filippou teamwork, burgeoning into ominous resolution, and taking a corner into the previously uncharted territory of perversion.
Pity sees its protagonist, similarly to L, in a family situation. An unnamed, middle-aged lawyer has constructed an elaborate ritual as his daily routine. He starts the day with a therapeutic morning cry, waits to be endowed with a cake by a compassionate neighbor, eats it with his son, and then before heading to the office, brings clothes to the dry cleaners. The mechanical rigorousness, as well as the whole affair, is a result of his comatose wife. It is not because of, but thanks to, the accident that the lawyer can wallow in pity and savor it.
Front and center of the film is the “Lawyer” (Yannis Drakopoulos), like “Man” (Aris Servetalis) in L, and his performance bears all the weight of the film. No matter how circumstances change, his stone-face seriousness does not alter from its deadpan orthodoxy; although in close-ups, Drakopoulos’ look is the canvas of nuanced expressions, ranging from melancholy to jealousy to psychotic, without seemingly moving a brow. “He is a stand-up comedian,” says Makridis of Drakopoulos, a domestic television star, “and all stand-up comedians are depressive. I met him at casting office, he came inside and he was so depressed. And I say ‘This is the guy.’”
Pity became his life’s energy, misery the vehicle with which to navigate. If there was a fragment of Arthur Schopenhauer’s thought in L, the idea got a lot more thinking and inspiration in Pity, even though Makridis denies any proclivity to potential philosophical strands besides reading Albert Camus in his mid-teens. “Philosophy is like religion. They are both ready and fixed from others just for the minds who are bored to search for answers. You must explore life by yourself in the way you can and you like,” said the director. The Lawyer converts the Schopenhauerian concept of pessimistic existentialism into a emo-gimmick he practices zealously while Makridis exaggerates it to extreme lengths as satirical fodder.
Once his only leverage in his self-constructed social hostage situation is jeopardized and he fails to extort his life energy as an insatiable vampire of sympathy, a depraved part of the Lawyer’s psyche takes ahold of his actions. The major digression from Makridis’ first feature fully exposes itself at this point, as the poetics of the absurd trade minimalism and opaqueness for a different type of expressive palette, en route to the cinema of Michael Haneke. “The shot of the door in the end is, I believe, inspired by Michael Haneke . I did not have in mind, to tell the truth, that happened in the editing room since it was differently written in the script. It was maybe subconscious influence. Maybe. But I love Haneke,” said the director after the tone of absurd dramedy dramatically morphs by drastic proportions. The impending tragedy and its grotesque development almost immediately recalls Lanthimos’ latest, The Killing of a Sacred Deer, although Makridis said that he had not seen the film while working on Pity; however, the slight similarity or a kind of expectation tied to the uncoiling of the plot might arise based on seeing The Killing of a Sacred Deer first (the uncanny anticipation does not reach that climax) stems from Fillipou’s pen. Absurdity is Makridis’ jam, while the macabre humor can be easily pinpointed as Efthymis Fillipo’s trademark, based on previous evidence.
Makridis leaves the story open to interpretation, persevering in the storytelling modus of allegory. That said, an explanation obtrudes itself in an obvious fashion since the Greek Wave rode in on the political and social upheaval. Greece found itself in a precarious situation with its debt, the imposed strict austerity measures, and the prospect of simply being bailed out. Makridis refuses any parallels between Pity and Greece: “When we were pitching Pity at Rotterdam and somebody asked me if the film is about Greece, I told everyone no and I do not like that at all. I do not like this kind of tricks. It’s a fashion, look what’s going on in Greece, let’s do a film about it.”
The minimalist and austere approach to plot and scenes magnifies the ambiguousness, making Pity a double-edged sword of interpretation. On one hand, the obvious understanding would be of satire, even farce, given the hyperbole of the main protagonist’s self-victimization. While given the actual context of the invocation of the pursuit of happiness through positive thinking as a lifestyle and life philosophy, Pity could be read as a caustic antidote and subversive and witty foray to undermine the cult of optimism.
Makridis established a fairly distinguished personal style in his feature debut and continues to work within its aesthetic framework in Pity, despite pushing the envelope once again. His style does not only incorporate minimalism and absurdity, but also formalism in the fixed composition and static camerawork. “I do not think the camera needs to move. The camera should observe and not participate. L was a story that I can implement that thought. I wanted to make a steady road movie,” the director explained of the composition on his debut, continuing, “L is about a character who thinks he can move and go on in life, but actually never moves. The camera treatment gives the true meaning of the story.” Pity profits from the same formal configuration, although the greatest surprise and film’s twist, maybe even a shock, is a tracking shot in a greenhouse. The camera moves in total only three times. “I think we needed them to be more with him [the protagonist], to get closer to his face and in the forest, that’s the first time the scene is dark and I think the form must change there to be something else, that’s why we move the camera,” he said.
With Pity, Babis Makridis rises from a cloistered circle of cult cineastes, where his feature debut inscribed him, to a more accessible arthouse without compromising his signature style. Being less cryptic and more macabre eventually transfers him into the territory of Yorgos Lanthimos, a parallel hard to shrug off. However, he does not step into Lanthimos’ shadow. The idiosyncrasy of Makridis’ debut translates into a proclivity for formal experimentation and genre-crossing in his new film, which along with his cynical probing of the extremities of social interaction, secure him a special spot within the national cinema and a rewarding curiosity on the international circuit.