In Greek Cypriot writer-director Marios Piperides’ debut feature “Smuggling Hendrix,” a down-on-his-luck, about-to-emigrate Cypriot musician must think creatively when his adorable dog Jimi accidentally crosses over to the Turkish side of the divided capital Nicosia, and European laws prevent the canine’s return. Piperides nabbed the top prize in Tribeca’s international competition for this delightful, droll, and intelligent comedy, which captures the absurdity and tragedy of a complicated political situation with a consistently light touch. Festival play is ongoing for this crowd-pleaser, with multiple European distribution deals already in place.
It’s not a problem if you know nothing about Cyprus and its 20th-century history of intercommunal violence between Greek and Turkish residents, the 1974 Turkish invasion, or the proclamation of northern Nicosia as the capital of Northern Cyprus, a country recognized only by Turkey. Piperides contextualizes this recent past through a stream of news reports on the situation playing in the background of many scenes.
The divided capital’s crucial role in the plot is also mapped out via the film’s good-looking visuals. We see the narrow, twisting lanes of Nicosia’s southern Old Town end abruptly at the Green Line, the UN buffer zone, an eyesore crammed with abandoned buildings, barbed-wire fencing, cement bunkers, and oil barrel barricades. And then there are the militarized checkpoints, one manned by Greek Cypriots, the other by Turkish Cypriots, whose soldiers casually call out to each other across the no man’s land.
The protagonist, Yiannis (likeable Adam Bousdoukos, a German actor of Greek extraction, best-known to U.S. audiences for his roles in Fatih Akin’s films, in particular “Soul Kitchen”), is a long-haired man-child with many problems and multiple debts. His solution: to flee the country for the Netherlands. As the narrative begins, his departure is scheduled three days hence. Until then, he needs to avoid the menacing collectors sent by the local loan shark and his angry landlady. It all seems possible, but then the excitable Jimi takes off on his own.
As Yiannis follows the path of his pooch, it also marks a journey into his own past, since he was born on what is currently the Turkish side of the Green Line and his parents’ one-time home now belongs to Turkish settlers. There he meets Hasan (Fatih Al, “Our Grand Despair”), the Turkish family’s Cyprus-born son, who introduces him to philosophical Turkish Cypriot smuggler Tuberk (Özgür Karadeniz), who agrees to help … for a price. Naturally, complications ensue, and the increasingly desperate Yiannis is forced to call upon his pretty former girlfriend Kika (Vicky Papadopoulou) for help.
While Piperides’ inspired screenplay ups the comic ante by placing more and more outrageous obstacles in the way of returning south with the dog, it also reinforces the common humanity of all involved in the recovery project. Sure, it seems preposterous that bureaucratic regulations prevent a runaway dog from returning home, but is it not even more unreasonable that Hasan, for whom Cyprus is the only country that he has ever known, is unable to get a Cypriot passport since he is the son of someone considered an “occupier”?
Piperides also deserves kudos for winningly extending the general absurdity to the amusing dialogue (for example, some border guards discuss the age of actor Ralph Macchio, the one-time “Karate Kid,” and Turbek cites offbeat facts about the Dutch) and even throwaway visuals such as the No Borders Lingerie shop, and the Turkish star-and-crescent symbol found on both sides of a blowup mattress.
The best-known member of the cast, rumpled, hangdog Bousdoukos, makes viewers root for Yiannis as his odyssey also becomes a belated coming-of age journey. Turkish thesps Al and Karadeniz provide solid and sweetly amusing support. The ensemble casting is aces, down to the smallest roles, including Kika’s tall, slender, well-groomed boyfriend, who is the visual antithesis of Yiannis.
Pacey cutting and a genial score also boost the film’s charm.