The hot-button topic of refugees in Europe is given a well-meaning yet unremarkable run-through in Yannis Sakaridis’ sophomore feature “Amerika Square.” The script tries hard to weave together various stories, from a disgruntled, unemployed Greek schlub to a Syrian refugee desperate to find a haven for himself and his daughter, yet characters are unevenly drawn, and only the father from Aleppo feels like a fully realized figure. Though box office at home following a March release was dire, the film’s topicality has made it a staple of festivals ever since its Busan premiere in 2016; it’s not too churlish to wonder whether thematic rather than cinematic considerations were at play when “Amerika Square” was chosen as Greece’s Oscar contender.
Thirty-eight-year-old Nakos (Makis Papadimitriou, “Suntan”) still lives with his parents and has never held down a job. Instead, he hangs out with his tattoo artist friend Billy (Yannis Stankoglou) and complains about how their Athens neighborhood has filled up with foreigners. He’s not too thrilled with the Albanians, Poles and Russians living in the building, but he’s particularly exasperated by the Pakistanis, Afghans, Africans and Syrians, who occupy the lowest rung on the social ladder.
Among that group is Tarek (Vassilis Kukalani), a middle-class man from Aleppo who’s willing to do whatever it takes to safely get himself and his daughter Maya (Dorothea Howlader), 9, to Berlin. That means dealing with people-smuggler Hassan (Sultan Amir), whose most secure proposal involves faked Italian passports and plane tickets to Italy, with Maya accompanied on the plane by two associates to reduce the chances of getting caught. No doubt somewhere on the planet there really is an honest smuggler of migrants whose business interests are balanced by concern for his clients, just like Hassan and his associates. At least, one hopes such people exist, though let’s face it: it would be easier to find an undamaged building in Raqqa than a responsible human trafficker.
At the same time that Tarek and Maya are waiting for their new passports, Billy meets Tereza (Ksenia Dania), a stateless African singer looking to escape from her mobster boyfriend (Kostas Kourtidis). Billy may be an old friend of Nakos’ but he doesn’t share his anger at foreigners, and he falls for Tereza just when Nakos decides to rid Athens of outsiders by leaving poisoned loaves of bread in places where refugees are known to scavenge.
If that last plot point seems a little extreme in the telling, blame it on the script, which paints Nakos as an aggravated ne’er-do-well but fails to build his resentment to murderous proportions until suddenly he’s pouring an evil powder into 12 pounds of flour. The guy’s fake nostalgia for the homogenous society of his childhood is an important part of his psychological makeup, and that part is well done, but his tilt into homicidal vigilantism is less than skillfully managed. Also problematic is the underwritten role of Billy (anyone with Arthur Rimbaud tattooed on his chest deserves some backstory), and Tereza also needs fleshing out. Only Tarek comes across as a three-dimensional character whose circumstances, even if sketchily presented, feel real.
Cinematographer Jan Vogel (co-director of “Wasted Youth”) gives the film a solid visual style, including a few nice drone shots, but Sakaridis overdoes the montage interludes and he fails to wrap things up in a satisfying manner. Music is too present in the early scenes, but is used more judiciously thereafter.