Borne on the back of a juvenile performance of remarkable intelligence and spontaneity, Vardis Marinakis’ fine-boned “Zizotek” has an uncanny shimmer to its storytelling: It slips unnoticed from genre to genre like a quiet child moving between rooms trying not to disturb the adults. Starting out as a family drama of parental neglect and abandonment, it then becomes a woodsy survivalism tale and an odd-couple bonding narrative, before even those earthy elements fall away and we’re left with the delicate, skeleton-leaf framework of a myth, or a fairy tale — one of the dark kind that ends weirdly, rather than happily, ever after. Only the Greek director’s second feature, its effect is peculiar and moving and subtly bewitching, like a dream where you’re not sure at exactly which point you started dreaming.
A delicate balance between prosaic reality and the softer, subjective perception of a child is present from the outset, as 9-year-old Jason (terrific newcomer August Lambrou-Negrepontis) walks himself home, makes his dinner and settles in to watch TV before his mother (Penelope Tsilika) arrives back to their apartment. One moment of her staring at her exhausted reflection in the hall mirror before greeting her son is all we need to understand that Eva is not okay, and seems to be carrying an immense depressive weight on her shoulders. The boy, heartbreakingly alert to his mother’s mood and made resourceful, we infer, by her neglect, makes her waffles and begs her to eat just a bite, in an effective reversal of their proper roles as caregiver and cared-for.
Jason’s wary, watchful sweetness (which Lambrou-Negrepontis manages to play without cutesiness) and the intensity of his devotion to his mother, are deeply affecting because we instantly understand that they spring from a basic fear of being discarded — his father has been out of the picture for a long time. But as happens so often in an ancient myth or a Greek tragedy (for such this is), it is partly the very fear of something that makes it happen. Perhaps the pretty, troubled Eva, distracted and desperate but not unloving toward her child, is aware of how unfair it is that Jason has taken so much responsibility for her onto himself, and it informs her most unforgivable act. The following day, they get dressed up, sit for a mother-son portrait and take the train to a folk festival in the countryside, where the woman deliberately and with great distress, abandons her child.
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Jason, muddy and desolate and alone, wanders the surrounding woods for a time, before stumbling on a ramshackle dwelling and breaking in. The place belongs to Minas (Dimitris Xanthopoulos), a mute, wild-haired loner who at first is less than thrilled to discover a small boy asleep in his bed. But gradually, the two outcasts grow close — fervently so, with each finding in the other the unconditional affection they never received elsewhere. Or that, in some corner of their similarly scarred psyches, they don’t believe they deserved. But Minas’ borderline illegal status, and his shady job running refugees across the countryside, as well as the interference of a well-meaning neighbor of Eva’s, mean that the authorities soon intervene to try to separate them.
On one level, the story so far — although glowing in the restrained romance of Christina Moumouri’s lyrical cinematography and accented by the soft piano melodies of Ted Regklis’ score — feels largely “realistic,” despite a few, arguably unnecessary, overt dream sequences. But as motifs recur, such as the bear that Jason is convinced lurks in the woods and on which he becomes fixated, the gentle undertow toward the fantastical starts to tug harder. Some of its elements take on folkloric qualities: the cottage in the woods; the Huntsman-like demeanor of Minas, a potential threat turned valiant protector; even the Cruella-like stripe of white through Eva’s long, dark hair. And how many fairy tales begin with an orphan or a vulnerable child, lacking the protection of a parent?
The performances are uniformly strong, and Marinakis’ compassion for his flawed characters is evident in how carefully he contextualizes their bad behaviors in terms of their pain rather than their malice. But Lambrou-Negrepontis is extraordinary, conducting us guilelessly into the emotional heart of every scene. He connects us to the film’s inner reality even when it finally sheds the last vestiges of realism and turns into a strange, fully-grown fable that makes no logical sense unless we see it through Jason’s clear, hurt eyes. Viewed that way, Marinakis’ impressive, unexpected, elusive “Zizotek” becomes the tale its lost-boy hero is telling himself, using the childish lexicon of myth and legend for its original purpose: To make sense of the incomprehensible cruelty of the world, by turning it into a story.