It’s been shown, on occasion, that audiences will turn out to see a movie about the post-9/11 world: a serious and inquiring drama of war, terrorism, and global culture clash. But even in an era as fraught with instability as this one, will people show up to see a movie that mirrors their economic anxieties? With rare exceptions (like “Up in the Air,” an early Hollywood responder to the 2008 meltdown that was followed by…not very much), the answer is no. That nerve is simply too raw.
Yet I can’t help but believe that a great wrenching drama that brilliantly channeled the collapse of the middle class would have the potential to strike a powerful chord with a mass audience. “Worlds Apart,” a small-scale drama from Greece, is like the baby-steps version of that movie. It interweaves three stories (sort of like “Babel,” though all set in one place — in this case, Athens), and it takes in the crisis of Middle Eastern refugees, but the film is most telling when it uses the disaster of Greece’s economic collapse to show us what’s really happening to people’s lives in one particularly messed-up region of the world — a region that may offer a glimpse of what’s going to start happening elsewhere.
The Greek crisis, as portrayed in “Worlds Apart,” is a perfect storm of angst and turmoil: an explosion of immigration issues like the ones bedeviling Germany, laid on top of financial meltdown, all feeding the fever of civil war. At first, the film seems like the mildest sort of message-movie fairy tale, as it zeroes in on the East-meets-West, Romeo-and-Juliet love story of Daphne (Niki Vakali), a young Greek woman, and Farris (Tawfeek Barhom), the Syrian refugee who rescues her from an assault, then notices her on a bus and rushes to befriend her. Before long, they’re flirting and holding hands and enjoying secret meetings in an abandoned airport, where Farris (along with other Syrians) has found a makeshift home.
It’s a puppy-love romance, and therefore, though sweet and convincing, it doesn’t transcend the didactic element that always creeps into these movies — that feeling of “Look! Doesn’t love make our prejudices seem petty!” What grounds the segment is the rage of Daphne’s father, Antonis (Minas Chatzisavvas), a shopkeeper who has lost his business and blames what he sees as a tidal wave of crime caused by impoverished refugees. With nothing else to do, and no outlet for his resentment, he becomes the underground bully for a violent anti-immigrant group, smashing limbs to teach lessons. And then, during a raid at the airport, he sees Daphne and her boyfriend…
At that point, the writer-director, Christopher Papakaliatis, cuts away. He has planted a seed, however, and will circle back to it. “Worlds Apart” comes on like a trio of discrete stories, but as the connections among them are revealed, each one grows a little richer. The most resonant is the second segment, which stars Papakaliatis himself as a beleaguered husband and father named Giorgos who pops anti-depressants to cope with a fraying marriage and with a corporate-management job that involves standing by as the jobs around him get axed. Watching the tears and desperation of his laid-off co-workers, which veer at one point into suicide, it’s clear that their devastation derives from their fear that they’ve slipped through the cracks — that there’s no more employment out there, just oblivion.
Giorgos, on the other hand, is hanging on. But then he falls into a coldly erotic affair with Elise (Andrea Osvart), the laser-like, amoral Swedish consultant who’s in charge of the downsizing. It’s like “Up in the Air: The Dark Side,” and Papakaliatis, as an actor, puts us in touch with the tug-of-war that’s going on inside Giorgos. Can he save his own hide and liberate himself too?
“Worlds Apart” lands in an episode that feels like dessert. It stars J.K. Simmons, who plays Sebastian, a German lonelyheart with a twinkle in his eye. Surprisingly, Simmons’ attempt at a German accent is not very good, but he looks cuddlier in a beard, and he gives an expert, soft-shoe performance that rescues what might have been a cloying encounter. Sebastian meets Maria (Maria Kavoyianni), an unhappy housewife whose family has run out of money; their courtship consists of meeting, every Friday afternoon, at the supermarket, where Sebastian buys her fruits and vegetables — a romantic gesture that might seem preposterous if it weren’t so infectiously…dystopian. These two lost souls find a communion, in an episode that suggests “Marty” as staged by late-period Fellini. And then we learn who Maria really is.
As a cinematic import, it’s doubtful that “Worlds Apart” will gain much traction. It isn’t bad, but it’s kind of a trifle. Though it treats its themes with reasonable honesty, it can’t help but come off as a bit diagrammed. Yet the movie is onto something: what happens to a society when “ordinary” life begins to get stripped away. It’s a theme you can bet we’ll be seeing a lot more of.