Greek native Evangelia Kranioti’s maiden voyage, “Exotica, Erotica, Etc.,” announces a new voice in the small world of essay filmmaking, with a muscular slice of psycho-geography that parses the romance of the seven seas without sinking in sloppy sentiment. It’s primarily the doc’s lensing, also by Kranioti, that helps prevent a reminiscence-driven character study from getting stuck in the doldrums: The heart-stopping seascapes and mesmeric machinery of ocean-going cargo ships transfix, even during narrative lulls. A prosperous circumnavigation of the global festival circuit seems assured, though a prominent theatrical berth will prove an overly daunting prospect for distribs focused primarily on landing risk-free bounty.
Festival billings of this fine visual essay as a “modern-day retelling of ‘The Odyssey'” perhaps overstate the case: The relationship between the two works reps the very lightest of allegories. Kranioti’s anthropological study follows men who spend huge stretches of time at sea, traversing the ocean, and the women who live near seaports who look forward to their return.
The film’s most vivid contributor is Sandy, an old woman who talks with a natural and earthy eloquence about her lost loves. Auds who hold a conventional view of female sexuality will find their preconceptions challenged by her simultaneously romantic and highly sexual perspective on her many lovers, whom we gather were a mixture of paid clients and transaction-free flings. While she doesn’t regret never marrying, her infertility is another matter. She would have liked a baby from each of her favorite regulars, and recites a litany of names — “Nico, Torgos, Babis … ” — as if hoping to conjure the past. The less spiritual qualities of these ghostly memories are praised: “Their hairy chests, their hand, their smell.”
The sailors also exhibit an ambiguous mixture of hardiness — to be expected from men working miles from land on rusty international transport tankers — and curiously tender camaraderie, the latter captured by Kranioti with an acute sense of intimacy. A particular highlight is an extended sequence that captures a crew of burly seamen shaking it as lasciviously as any music-video background dance troupe to the hits of ABBA. You really haven’t seen a counterintuitively playful image of masculinity captured on screen until you’ve seen a hirsute, heavy-set Greek sailor dip it low to “Dancing Queen.”
The other binary Kranioti seeks to break down is that of past vs. present: In “Exotica,” the two are experienced very much at the same time. We see a topless Sandy exposing a veritable landslide of senior bosom, but her words conjure a younger woman sailors flocked to admire. It’s not a pitying perspective, either, thanks to Sandy’s own peaceable equation of the change in her looks over time with honorable battle scars — the result of a campaign well fought.
It’s a truism that reality television depicts anything but reality, but had the form evolved in a different direction, the levels of trust Kranioti has evidently nurtured in her subjects wouldn’t make a bad benchmark for those aspiring to chronicle life-as-lived. Structure is perhaps less of a strength: The film feels relatively formless, a psychological wandering arranged as it occurs, following the meandering patterns of human recollection. However, that’s arguably an appropriate choice for this impressionistic doc; we’re not in the realm of argument or thesis here.
Kranioti’s shooting style approaches the visual equivalent of Hemingway’s prose, transmitting emotion without resorting to superfluous flourishes: You don’t need a Dutch angle when you’re framing the vast expanse of an unending ocean. At other moments, she captures the spare poetry of industrial labor, flooding the screen with red or gold, deliberately befuddling our sense of scale and leaving auds to pick out the lone figure diligently working away against the backdrop of a vast mountain of iron or grain, deep in the belly of a tanker.
Paring down a reported 450 hours of raw footage to the elemental 73-minute impression that remains must be considered a feat of Odyssean proportions in its own right: Kudos to editor Yorgos Lamprinos for his part in shaping Kranioti’s vision. The brief running time — conducive to post-screening discussions or even double billing alongside more obvious money spinner — may also assist arthouse exhibs considering whether to gamble on booking the film.