Michael Cacoyannis emerges from semi-retirement with “Up, Down and Sideways,” an amusing farce about the wild and crazy inhabitants of modern-day Athens. Featuring his favorite leading lady, Irene Papas, and good-natured humor, it’s Cacoyannis’ first film since “Sweet Country” seven years ago, and his most accessible project since his 1964 international hit, “Zorba the Greek.” Focusing on the very contemporary, hip lives of a mother and her gay son, comedy has good chances for limited theatrical release.
Sex farce has a great opener that sets the tone for the whole film: a traffic jam in Athens, with people losing their temper, and a bank robbery with the wrong gangsters caught. However, nothing that follows this sequence matches its irreverent mood, fast pace and masterly mise en scene.
At comedy’s center is Papas, a middle-aged, prosperous widow who shares an elegant house with her handsome gay son, Stratos Tzortzoglou. Enjoying an open, amiable relationship, mother and son also share great passion for the opera. Enter Panos Mihalopoulos, a young gym instructor, who claims to be Maria Callas’ nephew and manages to confuse both mother and son.
At the climax, directed in the best tradition of a Feydeau bedroom farce, Papas entertains her athletic beau upstairs while her son courts a sailor downstairs. They are, of course, unaware of each other’s activities. Doors open and close, and lovers are caught with their pants down, when a transvestite arrives at the house under circumstances too convoluted to describe.
The three lead characters are always credibly vivid and sympathetic. At 67, the still-beautiful Papas gives a charming performance as the open-minded, amorous widow — and dream-mother of every gay man. It’s a welcome change of pace for an actress mostly known for essaying Greek tragedies, including Cacoyannis’ films of “Electra” and “The Trojan Women.”
The handsome Tzortzoglou and the romantic Mihalopoulos lend reliable support as the sensitive son and macho instructor, respectively.
Light on its feet even in its weak moments, “Up, Down and Sideways” is Greece’s refreshing contribution to a growing body of films about the ever-changing lifestyles in big, cosmopolitan cities. It’s also a welcome move from Cacoyannis, whose erratic and sporadic career has included a number of pretentious films.