Following his Cannes-preemed “PVC-1,” Greek-Colombian helmer Spiros Stathoulopoulos addresses his Hellenic side with a monastic drama unsteadily perched between dreamy symbolism and subtlety-killing blatancy. “Meteora” has much to commend it: stunning locations among otherworldly mountaintop retreats, attractive icon-inspired animation and an impossible love between a monk and nun that’s generally focused on the conflict between desire and religious calling. Abandoning this delicacy creates an unsatisfying imbalance that destroys some genuine poetry while adding nothing in its place. “Meteora” is likely to remain trapped in the limbo of fest showcases.
Meteora is an area of central Greece where centuries-old convents sit atop extraordinary narrow mountains jutting up like giant craggy fingers. Stathoulopoulos sets his drama here, in a monastic establishment reachable by a long flight of stairs, and a nunnery only accessible via a large net attached to a pulley. His story tells of the illicit love between a monk and a nun, a relationship prohibited by monastic strictures and hindered by geography.
The opening shot shows a traditional triptych icon with a nun on the left, a monk on the right, and the central panel depicting their mountain retreats with two gaping mouths of hell at the base, separated by a maze. Animated areas cleverly illustrate the characters’ inner states in dreamlike images beholden to traditional iconography, complete with the panels’ richly tangible craquelure. What they convey – guilt, hesitant desire, inner struggle – pairs extremely well with the otherworldly aspects of the landscape and the unspoken, uncontrollable erotic forces at work.
Less successful is the literal fleshing out of the story. Theodor (Theo Alexander, unrecognizable from his recurring role as Talbot in “True Blood”) and Urania (Tamila Koulieva) have few places to meet. Publically, the sole locale is during mass, where he can’t help glancing her way, while privately they take advantage of errands in the valleys between their establishments. He’s more forthright with his desires whereas she’s tortured by them, burning her hand over a flame to mortify the flesh and overcome temptation.
References to classic legends, as well as scenes redolent with symbolism, are continuously incorporated. An animated scene of the Theodor icon figure winding his way through the maze with a ball of string is an obvious reference to Theseus and the Minotaur (though the myth’s application here is uncertain), and live-action goat sequences surely are meant to recall the traditional connection between goats and lust.
There’s an impressive animated sequence of Theodor hammering nails into the crucified Jesus’ hands, with Christ’s blood turning into a stormy sea of red that floods hell. It may not be subtle but it’s effective, unlike a scene with Urania masturbating, and another of the monk and nun engaging in explicit sex in a cave (she keeps her wimple on). Does Stathoulopoulos want a Philip Groening vibe or a Ken Russell one? Both are fine, just not together.
Such unevenness of tone keeps tripping the helmer up, and by the end auds will wonder what exactly he’s trying to say beyond noting the difficulty of suppressing desire. Far better to simply take in the locale’s splendor, shot in the heat of the summer when mornings enrobe the mountains in misty clouds that give way to a scalding light.
As with “PVC-1,” Stathoulopoulos is his own d.p., but unlike that one-take feature he’s utilized a tripod and long, still shots more in keeping with the slower tempos of monastic life (the sole exception is the use of shaky handheld shots during the goat sequence, in keeping with animalistic connotations). Images of the shrouded monasteries have a cool haziness that makes them seem almost noncorporeal, practically merging with the clouds before the sun’s warmth clarifies the air. Antiphonal music, mostly compositions from Perotin, is prudently inserted.