Syllas Tzoumerkas' striking soph feature tackles Greece's ongoing financial crisis with aggressive gusto.
Almost nobody is having a blast in, well, “A Blast,” and that statement can probably be extended to viewers of Syllas Tzoumerkas’ aggressive, agitated sophomore feature. Still, this story of a young mother’s manic nervous breakdown in the face of financial ruin displays more than enough rough-and-tumble directorial nerve, coupled with bristling socioeconomic critique, to magnetize those accustomed to the headier demands of Greek New Wave cinema. With its thrashing energy anchored by a fierce star turn from “Dogtooth” lead Aggeliki Papoulia, this unruly, exhausting but appropriately incendiary “Blast” has become a festival-circuit regular since its Locarno premiere; arthouse distributors, however, may need to stress the film’s driving pace and steamy sexual content to get auds to this particular Greek.
The national seething over Greece’s ongoing financial crisis has powered many of the country’s most striking auteur works over the last few years, though filmmakers have tended to address the subject through opaque allegory. Not so in “A Blast,” where scarcely any issue (or insult) goes unspoken, and where the narrative pivots drastically on a family’s ruinous business debts. As the characters snipe at each other, talking heads appear on background newscasts, opining that they live in “a country with no credibility.” Happily, the film’s sheer barrelling momentum largely fends off stodgy sanctimony; Tzoumerkas, who made an impression with his Venice-premiered 2010 debut, “Homeland,” has scarcely enough breath here for an extended diatribe.
If there’s no subtext to tease out in “A Blast,” however, the film’s fast, flushed, slip-sliding narrative structure makes ample demands of viewers’ attention. The proceedings open, as is all but de rigueur these days, near the end of the narrative trajectory, as an unseen motorist hurtles heedlessly down a darkened rural road, while a radio report describes a severe arson incident in the region. Viewers may guess the context of this scene before it resurfaces, though there’s enough boiling incident in the film to keep this prologue out of mind.
Following this propulsive opening gambit, we flash back to calmer times on the beach, where bright, college-age Maria (Papoulia) is revising for her law-school entry exam and sparring with her less confident younger sister Gogo (Maria Filini). From here on, the film moves swiftly back and forth between multiple time periods, deftly splintered and shuffled by documentary-schooled editor Kathrin Dietzel. If the actors’ unchanging appearance initially makes it difficult to determine exactly where each scene falls on the timeline, Tzoumerkas uses that disorientation to amplify a mounting, fevered sense of panic. Gradually, however, the full picture emerges: Maria has dropped her studies to run the ailing grocery store owned by her wheelchair-bound mother (Themis Bazaka), and married Yannis (Vassilis Doganis), a strapping sailor whose extended absences at sea leave his wife overwhelmed by her obligations to her parents and three children.
The end of Maria’s tether is therefore well in view even before she discovers the full extent, long concealed by her mother, of the family’s catastrophic finances — a situation viewed with minimal sympathy by weary banking consultants already beleaguered by the crises of innumerable other clients. With marital strain — only briefly allayed by bouts of turbulent headboard-rattling on Yannis’ infrequent visits — pushing Maria further to the brink, she lashes out at those around her in a fashion one might declare irrational even within the violent collated story world of recent Greek cinema.
“You’re a bit edgy as a family,” one bank teller mildly observes to Maria after a public tantrum with her father; it’s the most understated thing anyone says in the course of the film. Maria’s collapse may stand for that of many a disenfranchised individual against the system, though the “system” in place here is far from a single entity: The script, penned by Tzoumerkas and Youla Boudali, targets both the government and an alarming strain of extreme right-wing pushback, here represented by Maria’s brother-in-law Costas (Efthymis Papadimitrou).
Papoulia negotiates the character’s colliding moods and impulses with frazzled gusto in a bravura performance that nonetheless never succumbs to mannered hysteria. She’s supported by spiky ensemble work, with Doganis and Filini both making intrepid screen debuts.
Though the film’s energy may be reckless, its craft is never correspondingly coarse. Dietzel’s complex construction overreaches only in a climactic sequence of frantic, unilluminating cross-cutting between past and present. Tzoumerkas and d.p. Pantelis Mantzanas, meanwhile, make the counterintuitive decision to shoot this grim tale in bright, honeyed tones, to the point of making the characters appear actively sunstruck; it’s as clear a visual representation as any of the disconnect between Greece’s balmy, tourist-friendly surface and its fractious internal politics.