A few minutes before the end of “Digger,” first-time feature director Georgis Grigorakis arrives at a closing shot for the ages: an ambiguous, breath-halting ellipsis that distills all the film’s themes of dueling familial, economical and community values into one spooky, funny man-versus-machine tableau. Except, as it turns out, it’s not the closing shot, as “Digger” continues into a needless bow-tying epilogue that double-underlines points the film has already made elegantly clear.
A little like the clashing men at its center — an estranged father and son fighting for family land in an absurd, escalating war of physical and emotional attrition — Grigorakis doesn’t exactly know when to quit. The rest of his debut, however, could hardly be more exactingly poised and composed, drenched in thick, cloudburst-blue mood that lends heft and consequence to its small-scale storytelling.
A Berlinale Panorama premiere which later resurfaced in the Sarajevo lineup, “Digger” would likely have been a festival staple in a year of business as usual — both on its own impressive terms and as the latest in a long line of stylishly unsettling Greek tragicomedies that have by now formed their own national subgenre. The presence of “Chevalier” director Athina Rachel Tsangari as producer is an additional draw to programmers and distributors acquainted with the scene. Though “Digger” may be too remote and downbeat for widespread art-house play — with specialist streaming services a likelier avenue of future exposure — Grigorakis can firmly be considered a name to watch.
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Shot with a kind of ravishing menace by DP Giorgos Karvelas, the damp woodlands of Northern Greece are immediately presented as a battleground between humanity and nature, between tradition and alleged progress. The soft autumnal yellows and browns of the landscape are sporadically torn by the inorganic colors and motions of invading vehicles and machinery; even man, however, is weighed down by the heavy weather that tints and permeates every scene. Reclusive middle-aged farmer Nikitas (Vangelis Mourikis) has done his level best to blend seamlessly into the forest, from his unobtrusive hand-to-mouth lifestyle to the dun camouflage of his small timber cabin.
Nikitas has made such a modest mark on the land that he almost washes away with it in a sudden mudslide, caused by the reckless forest-clearing of nearby road construction. But that’s not all the bad news the rain delivers: Brashly zooming in on an off-road motorcycle is Johnny (Argyris Pandazaras), the son Nikitas hasn’t seen in 20 years, brandishing his recently deceased mother’s will, which claims he’s entitled to half his father’s property. Suddenly, Nikitas’ scraggly patch of forest is hot property, also targeted by the faceless construction firm that wants to blast their road right through it. A lopsided three-way struggle ensues, in which seething family tensions are overlaid with community politics and wider environmental concerns.
Grigorakis’s screenplay deftly triangulates these narrative stakes, keeping sight of small, pained portraits within the bigger picture. That it’s depressingly obvious which of these parties will emerge triumphant makes the intimate feud between awkward, absent father and flailing, dumbly furious son all the more poignant. A romantic subplot between Johnny and jaded villager Mary (Sofia Kokkali) is less thoughtfully written: Despite Kokkali’s blunt, engaging presence, her character acts as little more than a sounding-board for a callow young man gradually realizing his place in an unfeeling ecosystem.
Finally, the meat in “Digger” is in its study of abandoned masculinity begetting abandoned masculinity. Mourikis and Pandazaras give flinty, restrained performances that gradually reveal sore, tender spots; in turn, a warm, hopeful heart thumps beneath the film’s gorgeously grey, sodden surfaces, though Grigorakis makes the viewer work to find it. Ahead of that aforementioned closing-not-closing shot, “Digger” seems on the brink of turning into a cruel, cold shaggy-dog joke, but is pulled back toward humane territory by the unlikeliest of dei ex machina: In this witty, windblown modern fable, man, nature and machine get to take turns being the enemy and the savior.