In the near-decade since “Dogtooth” gnawed its way into viewers’ imaginations, the words “Greek comedy” have come to mean something nearly as distinct as “Greek tragedy” to arthouse audiences — just not always distinct from Greek tragedy, as Babis Makridis’s brittle, brutal, bone-dry “Pity” makes quite clear. Co-written with Efthimis Filippou, regular right-hand man to Yorgos Lanthimos, Makridis’s deader-than-deadpan sophomore feature dwells on the surprisingly poisonous properties of tea and sympathy: Initially stricken when his wife passes into a coma, a drab, soft-spined lawyer (Yannis Drakopoulos) soon finds there are more perks to living with grief than without. Sometimes in life, it seems, you have to make your own misfortune.
One man’s addiction to others’ pity — even in the face of brighter days ahead — is a wicked black-comic premise that other filmmakers might well spin into frenzied, mordant farce; “Pity,” however, keeps the tone and pace austere, its stray lunges of overt gallows humor sticking like a knife between the ribs. Premiering in Sundance’s world cinema competition, where Makridis’s debut “L” also unspooled six years ago, the film is more elegantly conceived and perversely compelling than its predecessor, though it also surfs in on a so-called Greek Weird Wave that, with its by-now signature aesthetic and outlook, has lost some of its capacity to startle. If the film’s heightened, knowingly stilted delivery and fixed, formal camerawork no longer feel all that weird, neither do its telegraphed narrative jolts. That strange familiarity, or familiar strangeness, may curb international sales for “Pity,” though the festival circuit will continue to show solicitude.
“Most crying in movies is so fake, it’s almost ridiculous when someone starts crying in a movie,” our unnamed protagonist opines midway through “Pity.” That line is as close as this resolutely impassive film comes to winking at its audience, given that its first half is dominated by the selfsame man’s protracted, pain-wracked weeping: the first sound we hear as proceedings open on an unsympathetically sun-soaked stretch of urban coastline, and practically a score-replacing leitmotif by the time audiences suspect that the character himself may be forcing them a bit.
It’s never explained how the lawyer’s wife (Evi Saoulidou) wound up comatose and hospitalized, or for precisely how long he and his teenage son have been suspended in preemptive mourning for her. Whatever the case, sadness has become a regimented routine for this two-man family, a sense enhanced by the stoic, static, overbearingly symmetrical nature of cinematographer Konstantinos Koukoulios’s compositions. The lawyer has grown dependent on the kindness of near-strangers: He dourly counts on the bundt cakes delivered by a concerned neighbor and the sympathetic discounts offered by their regular dry-cleaner, and maintains a domestic mood of solemnity so rigid that even the boy’s classical piano-playing is deemed too jaunty by his disapproving father.
Dad’s preferred mood music: a self-composed lament for his wife’s anticipated death, packed with such comforting lyrics as, “Sheep and dogs shall be shrouded in blood, so everyone knows how much we love you.” Such lines offer a neat payoff to one of the film’s running affectations: stark black title cards that render the protagonist’s inner thoughts, ranging from the banal to the bleakly cryptic, as poetic quotations. The lawyer’s hilariously excruciating a capella rendition of his entire overwrought dirge marks the film’s absurdist comic summit — as well as that of Drakopoulos’s effectively dour, hemmed-in performance. But it’s also a wryly literal enactment of the key theme here: the potential for grief as performance, with well-wishers as a paying audience. (If there’s a certain metatextual irony to examining this within a movie, that does not go unnoted: At one point the lawyer reflects mistily on the cathartic experience of viewing that hoary old boxing weepie “The Champ,” a film as far from “Pity’s” modus operandi as Hollywood is from Haraklion.)
A tipping point has to be reached, and so it does — with our man’s shattered emotional state suddenly the status quo threatened by any unexpected change in circumstances. As “Pity’s” second half goes to ever more extreme lengths to rebalance (or rather, re-unbalance) its narrative, those extremities get progressively less surprising, not least to an audience already schooled in Filippou’s deft, nasty screenwriting swerves; in some senses, “Pity” could be viewed as a less operatic companion piece to the scribe’s most recent collaboration with Lanthimos on “The Killing of a Sacred Deer.” If “Pity” doesn’t quite have the shock of the new on its side, then, its sharpest passages nonetheless exert the bracing, mouth-shuddering tang of neat ouzo: You know how it’s going to taste, but it leaves you wincing anyway.