Caught between different cultures, fathers and adolescent urges, a Russian boy forced to relocate to Greece retreats into fantasy in “Son of Sofia.” The second feature from writer-director Elina Psykou (named by Variety in 2013 as one of “10 European directors to watch”), this coming-of-age story immerses itself in its protagonist’s unreal headspace, where fantasies about animals, murder and his mother portentously commingle. While its precise style is both the source of its unnerving power and the reason for its occasional inertia, the film — which won the best international narrative feature prize at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival — should attract attention from an adventurous art-house crowd.
Ten years after his baptism, Russian Misha (Viktor Khomut) arrives in Athens and falls directly into the arms of his mother, Sofia (Valery Tcheplanowa). Coming after two long years apart, as well as the death of his dad, this warm reunion provides Misha with only momentary relief from his misery, as he’s almost immediately informed by Sofia – who has brought as a gift a giant stuffed zebra, one of many such toys she constructs at her day job – that they’ll be staying with Mr. Nikos (Thanasis Papageorgiou), an elderly man for whom Sofia claims she works. This doesn’t sit well with the boy, but he acquiesces, his face stained with the same look of quiet, soul-deep sorrow it always exhibits.
As Misha learns, Nikos is a domineering presence, demanding that he and Sofia speak in Greek rather than in Russian and teaching Misha the national language in home-school lessons focused on family relations. He’s also the former star of a 1970s children’s television program in which he performed fairy tales, donning costumes to play every character and then delivering critical analyses of the stories at hand – which often focused on oedipal desires. That’s no coincidence, given Misha’s oh-so-very-intense feelings for Sofia. Nonetheless, such emotions are just one element of “Son of Sofia,” which soon has Misha exploring other carnal impulses via his friendship with Ukrainian teenage gigolo Victor (Artemis Havalits), with whom he briefly stays after learning the true marital nature of Sofia and Nikos’ relationship.
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If that weren’t enough material for one film, “Son of Sofia” sets its action during the 2004 Summer Olympics – games whose heterogeneous nature speaks to these characters’ efforts to synthesize their disparate (individual, familial, cultural) issues into unified identities. It’s not an easy task, especially for Misha, who in various interludes disappears into reveries in which he’s a bear traversing a nocturnal world of zoo animals, beanstalks, and other assorted fairy tale components.
Psykou’s visuals are often static, and she likes to frame her characters as small, solitary figures spied at the end of hallways or in distant doorways – when, that is, she’s not generating intimacy through aesthetic proximity to Misha, whose morose countenance is front and center throughout. It’s a formal strategy that has a tendency to drag the material to a standstill, sabotaging any hints of humor. Still, along with its carefully crafted production design (full of elaborate knickknacks covering walls and crowding rooms) and an idiosyncratic score marked by lullabies, the director’s approach casts a strange, despondent spell.
As Misha meanders through a few fugue-like summer weeks, “Son of Sofia” takes one surprising left turn after another, all of them leading to a finale that leaves things literally up in the air. It may play more like a half-remembered dream of childhood anxieties than a lucid depiction of the process of growing up in a foreign land and with a hodgepodge clan. But even when it fails to completely cohere, Psykou’s film is never less than unique.