An involving family drama about a young boy's dreams and personal loss, "Hard Goodbyes: My Father" brings a light touch -- and a full measure of unaffected charm -- to potentially downbeat material.

An involving family drama about a young boy’s dreams and personal loss, “Hard Goodbyes: My Father” brings a light touch — and a full measure of unaffected charm — to potentially downbeat material. First feature by TV director-producer Penny Panayotopoulou shows confident handling of both its adult and kid casts, a natural feel for its period setting and restrained use of magic-realist touches. Tightening by 10 minutes would improve the film, which looks to have a career on the fest circuit as a small delight. Spirited 10-year-old thesp Yorgos Karayannis was a surprise winner of the best actor award at Locarno.

Like Hristos Dimas’ recent “The Well,” pic is a family ensembler set during the Greek junta period. But Panayotopoulou is more interested in the first moon landing, which took place during the era, than in any covert social or political parallels.

Opening “somewhere in Athens” in May ’69, film succinctly sketches life in an average family, in which the parents (Stelios Mainas, Ioanna Tsirigouli) are showing mid-life marital strains, elder son Aris (Hristos Bouyotas) is going through a sullen phase, and younger brother Elias (Karayannis) lives in a world of his own creation. Devoted to his father, Elias hoards chocolate bars in an old army rations box, spends hours dreaming of the upcoming moon landing, and has an obsessive interest in numbers.

One day, the salesman father makes love to his wife, leaves notes for his kids and drives off on a business trip. When he’s unexpectedly killed in a car accident, his wife stoically tries to hold the family together as Elias refuses to accept the truth — that his dad cannot keep his promise of being with him to watch the moon landing in July ’69.

It’s here at the half-hour mark that the movie really begins, as Elias constructs another alternative universe to explain his father’s absence. He tells his schoolmates his black armband is simply a ploy to get preferential treatment from the teachers; and to maintain the fiction further, he fakes letters from his father to his ornery old grandma (vet Despo Diamantidou).

Story sounds like a recipe for some over-cute kidpic but in fact plays very differently on screen, thanks to not forcing Elias to be the sole focus of the movie, and good perfs from the adult cast — especially Tsirigouli as the valiant, still attractive wife, and Hristos Steryoglou as the kid’s kindly uncle Still, pic would benefit by trimming of a reel or so, especially the boy’s games and fantasies.

Stavros Sofianopoulos’ warm chamber score is an asset in tying things together, especially in the last act, and Dimitris Katsaitis’ lensing, with use of chiaroscuro in the many interiors, provides visual edge. Period detail is authentic and unforced.

Hard Goodbyes: My Father

Greece-Germany

Production

A CL Prods., Greek Film Centre, Penny Panayotopoulou (Greece)/Twenty Twenty Vision (Germany) production, in association with ERT, Max Prods., Alpha TV, Anima Film. (International sales: Greek Film Centre, Athens.) Produced by Costas Lambropoulos, Thanos Karathanos, George Louizos. Directed, written by Penny Panayotopoulou.

Crew

Camera (Fujicolor), Dimitris Katsaitis; editor, Petar Markovic, Angelos Angelopoulos; music, Stavros Sofianopoulos; art director-costumes, Lily Kentaka; sound (Dolby SR), Nikos Papadimitriou; sound designer, Kai Tebbel. Reviewed at Locarno Film Festival (competing), Aug. 6, 2002. (Also in Toronto Film Festival -- Discovery, and Chicago Film Festival -- competing.) Running time: 113 MIN.

With

Yorgos Karayannis, Stelios Mainas, Ioanna Tsirigouli, Hristos Steryoglou, Hristos Bouyotas, Despo Diamantidou.
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