The victims of the titular baker/hitman have it easy; it’s the audience that dies slowly at “Stratos,” director Yannis Economides’ perversely protracted study of moral and spiritual decay in recession-era Greece as seen through the eyes of a sullen hired killer. This latest torch-bearer of the ongoing Greek cinema revival is a frustrating experience, to say the least, given that Economides (directing his fourth feature) has obvious gifts for image making and atmosphere, plus a valuable partner in lead actor Vangelis Mourikis — beyond which, almost everything that makes the film infuriating can be read as fully intentional on the part of the filmmakers. Indeed, so effective is “Stratos” at putting you under the skin of its protagonist and his repellent milieu, most viewers (and buyers) will feel the urge to bolt well before this nearly two-and-a-half-hour endurance test has run its deterministic course.
It’s rarely an encouraging sign when a director likens his own movie in the press notes to “an existential psycho-cardiogram of speech and silence,” and indeed, one spends much of “Stratos” wishing that someone would rush in with an existential defibrillator to jolt the characters from their communal torpor. Of course, we get the point (within about the first five minutes) that this is Greece in the time of the crisis and that people have been pushed past the depths of despair. To wit, there are few scenes in “Stratos” that do not somehow rub our noses in the resultant squalor: gangsters who betray their own codes of honor; brothers who pimp out their own sisters (and possibly their own underage nieces); and the privileged few whose decadence knows no limits of indecency.
Gazing out on all this with an increasingly troubled soul is Stratos (Mourikis), who works the night shift in an industrial bakery and by day makes a different kind of dough (as one character bluntly points out) by swiftly putting bullets in the heads of his unsuspecting marks. Admittedly, it isn’t always possible to tell just what Stratos is gazing at, and Mourikis, who’s been a steady presence in recent Greek cinema (most notably as the father in “Attenberg”), has such a magnificently craggy hangdog face that it almost doesn’t matter. At least half of the movie must be Mourikis closeups, d.p. Dimitris Katsaitis scrutinizing the actor’s dermatological peaks and valleys as if they were the Balkans themselves; watching him, one is reminded of the experiments of the Soviet filmmaker Lev Kuleshov, in which a deadpan film performer could be made to look variously happy, sad, hungry and content depending on what kinds of shots were inserted on either side of him.
Eventually, we do learn a bit about Stratos’ notorious past. In perhaps the film’s best, liveliest scene, a volatile loan shark called Petropoulos (played with sinister flair by Yannis Voulgarakis) recognizes him from the old days and launches into a paean to the enemies Stratos once dispensed by chopping them up into little pieces. In prison, Stratos was mentored and protected by the avuncular Leonides (Alekos Pangalos), and he now labors together with Leonides’ slimy brother Yorgos (Yannis Tsortekis) to spring him from the pen. (Their not entirely convincing plan involves the digging of a “Great Escape”-style tunnel under the prison.)
It can be too easy — and sometimes unfair — to stereotype Greek art films of both the old and new schools for their glacial pacing and static air. But Economides (“Soul Kicking,” “Knifer”) really asks for it with his mannered visual and narrative repetitions — a deliberate stylistic choice to be sure, but one that has the effect of draining the film of its already minimal dramatic tension. The director, who also co-wrote the script with four other writers (including the prolific producer Christos V. Konstantakopoulos) is fond of holding on shots of empty streets at dawn, fog-shrouded hillsides, and cars winding their way Kiarostami-style up steep mountain roads, while composer Babis Papadopoulos’ minimalist guitar score cycles through the same handful of chords on the soundtrack. When Economides’ laconic characters do speak, they inevitably reiterate the same information four or five times with slight variations in verbiage — a device that occasionally builds to a Beckett-like absurdity (particularly when one of the tunnel diggers explains to Stratos that they are now “balls-deep” in the project), but more often comes across as a tiresome, sub-Mamet affectation.
Speaking of that tunnel, the digging proceeds so slowly that one begins to wonder if the workers are perhaps “balls-deep” with teaspoons. This gives Economides time for a secondary storyline concerning Stratos’ relationship with his neighbor Makis (Petros Zervos) and Makis’ sister, Vicky (Vicky Papadopoulou), who are up to their eyeballs in debt to Petropoulos and who seem to be Stratos’ only real friends. (He sometimes babysits their young daughter, Katerina, whose symbolic innocence is deployed by the film with all the subtlety of a Blue Light Special at Kmart.) Ultimately, only Stratos’ filial devotion to Leonidas (who has made his share of enemies in the joint) gives the movie a real emotional hook, but that dilemma reaches a resolution by the 90-minute mark, at which point “Stratos” still has nearly one hour left to go.
On some level, “Stratos” (whose Greek title, “To mikro psari,” translates as “Little Fish”) seems to be reaching for a mood-drenched modern noir in which style becomes an expression of content, a Mediterranean spin on Jean-Pierre Melville or Michael Mann. But Economides’ artful poses — and blood splatter — seem altogether too posed, especially during a final third in which the characters’ actions can be understood in intellectual terms, but play out with a dearth of genuine feeling. Even then, Economides can arrive at an arresting image or moment of unexpected power, as when Vicky, her destiny unknowingly sealed, gets up to dance in a restaurant and the camera whirls 360 degrees around her, locked in a feverish courtship. There is a talent here that can not be denied, in service of a movie that cannot be redeemed.