By Dimitri Keramitas
As the issue of identity becomes an increasingly global one, filmmakers are delving into how characters navigate troubled cultural, national and economic divides to remain true to who they are - or merely to fit in.
Family Member, Cyprus’ contribution to the recent “Week of Foreign Cinema in Paris”, is one such film. It has been making the rounds at international festivals, where the questions it raises have resonated with audiences.
|How does one fit in? A scene from Family Member.|
Interestingly, none of the characters in Marinos Kartikkis’ movie is in fact “foreign” within the context of that divided country - they’re all Greek-Cypriot.
The catalyzing figure is an old man who worms his way into a Cypriot family (in Greek, the word for foreigner, xeno, can also refer to any outsider or stranger). Theodoros perturbs the family’s ways at first, and is barely tolerated. But gradually he makes himself accepted and liked, becoming a genuine “family member” (and also humanizing the others, who’d all seemed wrapped up in themselves).
The film begins as grim domestic and social tragedy. Yorgos (Christopher Greco) is a convenience shop-owner struggling to survive in a depressed economy. He tries to be lenient towards customers who can’t pay right away. In any case he doesn’t have much choice: He can either hope for deferred payment, or do without their business altogether.
Yorgos’ wife, Sophia (Yiola Klitou), tries to hold the family’s domestic economy together, but her children nag her for cash or the material things that Western kids normally take for granted. The family gets by with the aid of her aged father’s pension. The father lives with the family, which means that aside from the monetary contribution, he can help care for Yorgos and Sophia’s young son. One day he dies peacefully in his bed, which is not only a personal loss but a financial one - the precious monthly pension.
Out of desperation, Sophia gets the idea to keep the pension money coming by pretending that her father is still alive. After the unrelenting social tone, Kartikkis surprises us by sliding into blackly humorous melodrama, sort of like Shallow Grave or any number of prankish indie films. But the social context makes the plot creepily plausible. Sophia tries to persuade her husband to go along, and his horrified reaction lends more plausibility before he agrees to take the old man’s body to the cemetery for a secret burial. Even the children are brought into the family plot (in every sense of the word).
When Yorgos later catches an old man shoplifting, he pounces on him like an avenging angel but relents from turning him over to the police after the old man’s pleading and the compassionate urging of Sophia. She also sees in the man another way to further her scheme. Soon the old man is staying at their home, not only assisting in the pension scam, but trying to be useful or at least keep out of everyone’s way. The relationships between Theodoros and the family members become more complex, sympathetic and human. But questions about his past life arise, the family plot thickens, and the narrative moves in unexpected ways.
Family Member’s director, a US-trained painter and art teacher, films in a careful way, sometimes stately, other times nearly static. The four-square style plonks the camera in front of the action, which is framed in relative close-up. It’s an austere technique recalling the French director Robert Bresson, except here the aim isn’t spiritual or iconic, but rather brings out characters pressurized by external constraints. One shot feeds into the next fluidly, keeping the film from feeling oppressive, although oppressiveness is the dominant tone.
|A "family" dinner in the movie.|
The director’s sober filming eventually wavers (which comes as a bit of a relief), with a few headlong pans and vertiginous angles, but he never loses control. The Cypriot setting lends itself to his style.
Although the island is situated in the Mediterranean’s southern reaches, geographically more Middle Eastern than European, with palm trees decorating the landscape, the urban backdrop seems austere, evoking the island’s history as Crusader bastion, Frankish fief, and British colony. This is also reflected in the characters, all solidly portrayed by a talented cast. Christopher Greco and Yiola Klitou especially bring restrained power to their put-upon characters.
In the end, Theodoros turns out to be more foreign than he first appeared - not just another Cypriot retiree, but someone who’d spent much of his life in England. He comes to represent a different financial reality, from more normal times (just as Sophia’s father, with his pension, had). For people in countries struck by burst bubbles and failed austerity policies, economic normalcy has become a paradise lost. The characters in Family Member find some material consolation, but more importantly they regain their humanity in the process.
What the director illustrates in a cogent manner is how the prolonged economic crises in Cyprus and Greece have stressed not only society and family bonds, but the sense of identity. Parents unable to provide for their families, forced into degrading or dubious undertakings, see their self-image as breadwinners or proper middle-class people fray. Likewise, one’s acquaintances, colleagues, and customers become transformed into adversaries. The most banal government officials are seen as nefarious oppressors. Although Family Member doesn’t deal explicitly with migrants or refugees, the film is a powerful depiction of how in a time of crisis everyone becomes an Other - even oneself.
Production: AB Seahorse Film Production. Distribution: Homemade Movies (Cyprus).
Dimitri Keramitas is a legal expert and award-winning writer based in Paris.