Savina Petkova talks to Syllas Tzoumerkas about his film The Miracle of the Sargasso Sea, the role of theology in his work, and the influence of Robert Altman.
Syllas Tzoumerkas is a prominent Greek film director. Born in 1978 in the coastal city of Thessaloniki, he studied filmmaking in Athens. His first work was the short The Devouring Eyes (1999), which won him prizes at Cannes and Karlovy Vary. Homeland (2010), his first feature film, opened to critical acclaim at Venice in 2010. Tackling with the role of individuals and family amidst a political turmoil, Homeland earned Tzoumerkas a strong reputation in Greek and larger European contexts. Four years later, he premiered A Blast (2014) at Locarno International Film Festival, a story about a mother facing impossible choices, while the economic crisis eats away at both the private and public life.
His new film The Miracle of the Sargasso Sea (Greek: To thávma tis thálassas ton Sargassón) is being shown as part of the 69th Berlinale Panorama section. Sharply written, his characters portray something that Tzoumerkas himself admires in people—boldness, perseverance, and becoming your own saviour. For electric ghost it was a festival highlight (you can read our review here), and so we sought an audience with its maker. Tzoumerkas was pleased to converse with us, so we sat down to discern the religious implications of his latest work and how it relates to his previous films amidst the early morning festival fever.
electric ghost: Let me start off by saying that there is a certain commentary, or chronicle, of contemporary Greece in all of your films so far, including Sargasso. Would you say that they distill somewhat of a Greek subjectivity, one that is sometimes in the background of the public and political eye?
Syllas Tzoumerkas: My first film Homeland, was a, let’s say, a hellish depiction of Greece. It’s a very punk film, where the family and public life are intertwined in a very aggressive way. It’s actually a film made before the crisis, before everything that led to the big collapse of the country, to the bankruptcy of everything. A Blast is a purgatorial film in the sense that it’s more concentrated on one portrait and it conveys the experience of a generation that had disillusionment and saw everything going down in ruins. Then you have this person of my generation—Angeliki Papoulia [Maria in A Blast and Elisabeth in Sargasso] that, in a way, attacks her surrounding to find something for herself. Here, in Sargasso, it’s the political aftermath, so the political is pretty much behind in this kind of swampy situation, that nobody knows exactly where it’s all heading.
So we have Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. This is where religion comes in.
Yes, yes. Everyone in this film dreams of Paradise, as we were saying before. There is the sexual paradise, the religious paradise.
“There is the sexual paradise, the religious paradise. I think that the struggle for freedom exists in the film.”
The big question of theodicy—the pondering of why God allows evil in the world—is very important for the character of Rita. But how does religion function in the film, especially considering the epiphany-like dream sequences that puncture its narrative?
Well, the film constructs a dream space that is shared between these two women and myself, actually—the filmmaker. So it’s a triangle (laughs). This kind of subconsciousness intertwine and mingle and they wave in and wave out subconscious elements. Rita, I think, brings in the religious element in this, because she is a woman who cleans churches and confesses to a priest. She has a long dialogue with him about what is good and what is wrong and the old question of whether this is a world ruled by the Devil or God.
The Manichean question?
Yes, Manichean and also the gnostics. She brings in this dialogue that is also very intense in her heart. Then the film creates a grey zone about justice and what is right and if there actually is a justice bestowed by God, or the people’s justice, or the justice of the heart, which Elisabeth brings in. Because there is a sense of justice in us as people that has nothing to do either with theodicy or with the law. It could contradict them both. So the film wants to bring out this notion of the contradiction, of this grey area.
On the characters’ personalities, there is certain psychological parallelism, especially after you mentioned this shared dream space between protagonists and director, it reminded me of Robert Altman’s 3 Women .
Yes, Robert Altman is for sure a basis for this film, 3 Women and Nashville , and Images  also.
Also with the way you feel like you share their dreams and you can slip in and slip out of them at any time. So they do have this parallelism between them as characters, how are they different and in what way they become similar?
They are two very different women. Rita is very introvert, a person that has been silenced by her surroundings. Elisabeth is, on the other hand, a very hard fighting, extrovert person, a woman whose depression and self-destruction and anger have a voice. So this is the huge difference between them. But I think that what unites them is that they both have certain characteristics, that’s an exterior thing because Elisabeth is very much a woman of the world, the way she dresses, talks—she wants to be a scandal. The other one, Rita, is a very, very poor worker, I think that what they share as an interior experience is that they have both been denied their potential, they have both been beaten down from that. But no one has abandoned it. Ten years after Elisabeth is still struggling, hasn’t found a comfort zone. She cannot relax knowing that someone, you know, sent her away like that. She is still angry, still there, she is persistent. The same persistency is there in the character of Rita, who is a woman that finds at her certain point her inner strength.
That strength is connected to the character of Manolis, her brother, who is ever-present, abusive, and imprisoning towards Rita. But at the same time, he is loved as a local superstar, the person who brings in the Greek songs that everyone loves and sings along. Can you comment on his character’s gravitational pull, especially the quasi-religious group that gathers around him?
Everyone in this film dreams of Paradise, as we were saying before. There is the sexual paradise, the religious paradise. I think that the struggle for freedom exists in the film. Manolis is a kind of a leader in a certain Paradisal vision, that all these people, despite their age, long for. Despite the fact that he was a loser, that he never made it, so he became this singer in a local club that everyone adores. He is a terrible character but I think he is probably the most desperate one in the film. Because I think he’s the one who manages to live through the degradation of his Paradise vision, and he had a very strong one. This is very tragic when it happens to people. They become violent after that, always, when you have your Paradise, you know, lost.
“There is a freedom in the depiction of bodies in the film, and there is freedom in the way that characters use their bodies.”
What is the role of bodies in the film, since we see a lot of bodies partaking in orgies, in fights, performances, also there are dead bodies, as well as the transforming bodies of the animals, the eels. Is there any particular religious treatment of the body here?
Religious? Yes, there is a resurrection in the film.
Resurrection, of course, but is it confined to the traditional notion of body as prison that needs to be overcome?
You know what, I wanted all the characters to have freedom. There is a freedom in the depiction of bodies in the film, and there is freedom in the way that characters use their bodies. It’s never commented in the film what people do with their bodies, it’s simply there to follow, to follow their actions, the way they twist their bodies, the way they change their sexuality. Sexuality is also a wave in the film and for me this is simply the way we are as people. I’m very matter-of-fact when it comes to that. I love when people struggle—when they claim what they desire—and they expose themselves in any situation—from swimming in the lake to something more brutal. I’m very happy that this is the way it is represented in the film.
This is how people are alive, so your film is also very much alive in a similar sense.
In a way, I also think there is a key in this. The most fearless character, the brightest one is the son of Elisabeth. And I love the way he’s fearless and kind. In the end, when we see his reaction to his mother’s return, he knows that all of this is okay, since a lot of bad things happen to him as well.
You can read our review of Syllas Tzoumerkas’ The Miracle of the Sargasso Sea here.