A Greek man drives to Bulgaria to buy a newborn from an expectant mother in Milko Lazarov’s painstakingly arty, emotionally wan debut, “Alienation.” Attractively, at times surprisingly lensed using Super 16 anamorphic and a minimalist aesthetic, the pic occasionally plays like an alternate version of “4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days” but without the punch, never connecting with characters whose hardness, aside from the woman about to deliver, resists penetration. The controlled, slightly simian features of Christos Stergioglou (“Dogtooth”) make an interesting study, but “Alienation” will be only a minor blip on fest calendars.
Lazarov sets the tone in a series of po-faced scenes: Yorgos (Stergioglou) lives with younger wife, Elena (Iva Ognyanova), and his stroke-ridden mother (Dora Markova) in a forested area in northeastern Greece. Conversation is negligible, and affection, if it exists, is undemonstrative: When Yorgos and Elena have sex, it’s perfunctory at best. He withdraws €11,000 ($14,700) from the bank, checks to see whether a baby goat can breathe inside a small gas tank in his car’s trunk, and then drives across the border to Bulgaria.
Once there he picks up a pregnant woman (Mariana Jikich), her deaf-mute brother (Ovanes Torosian, wasted in a negligible role) and another woman who turns out to be a midwife (Neda Iskrenova). They go to a house in the countryside and await the birth. At a certain point, some surveyors appear in the vicinity, but what they’re doing either there or in the film is never made clear.
Given the extremely careful control the helmer exerts over each detail, in a quietly ostentatious way, it’s odd to find shots that lead nowhere and do nothing. A nice image of a starry night sky is held for several seconds; are viewers meant to think that stars are more abundant in the undeveloped Bulgarian countryside? If the director wanted to comment on the relationship between Greece and Bulgaria (the latter yet to be integrated into the EU), his subtlety, apart from a comment about empty factories, is simply too faint to register.
Yorgos’ stern expression, frequently captured in silent reaction shots, is devoid of sympathy for the woman whose baby he’s about to buy (the midwife, with her cold steel instruments, is equally distant); presumably audiences are meant to read this as a statement on the treatment of Bulgarians by their more privileged neighbors. Yorgos himself is one-quarter Bulgarian, just enough to accept raising a Bulgarian child as his own, though not so much to prevent treating the others as dispensable. In some ways, though, it’s a moot point, since warmth, apart from that of the woman and her sibling (they communicate in sign language), is absent in all relationships.
In the second half, torrential rains descend accompanied by thunderclaps, over-emphasizing the already ominous mood; a fish-eye shot of a forest and several images of the lush landscape act as counterpoint to the overall frigidity. Kaloyan Bozhilov’s spare framing is ultra-rational when focused on the characters, strictly observational and occasionally cutting off heads or legs as if to avoid getting two full people in the same shot. Speech is minimal, even without Yorgos’ voiceless mother and the woman’s mute brother, whereas sounds such as a ticking clock act as a major determinant of the oppressive atmosphere.