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Berlinale Review

THE MIRACLE OF THE SARGASSO SEA

Symbolic layers, religion, history, and myths take centre stage in soul-searching Greek drama

Savina Petkova on Syllas Tzoumerkas’s ‘The Miracle of the Sargasso Sea’ (2019)

Salvation as a religious theme resonates perhaps strongest within the Christian context, based on the concept of sin and repentance. In the latest Greek film paragon from Syllas Tzoumerkas, The Miracle of the Sargasso Sea / To thávma tis thálassas ton Sargassón, all characters, despite their moral differences, are united as sufferers that give themselves up daily to an idea of salvation that might come knocking at their door. Mysterious synchronicity draws together downgraded counter-terrorist Elisabeth (Angeliki Papoulia) with factory worker Rita (Youla Boudali also co-wrote the film script) in the small eel-farming town of Missolonghi, West coast Greece. After the puzzling death of Rita’s brother, local singing star Manolis (Hristos Passalis), the two women’s lives intersect to grant each other forgiveness and the long-awaited deliverance.

The film opens with a thrilling raid sequence, alternating between an anarchistic group’s orgiastic pleasures, and the lockdown operation that the Athenian police carries out, with officer Elisabeth calling the shots. However, these genre thrills do not last long; fast-forward ten years later and Elisabeth has been demoted to small-town police chief — a result of institutional blackmail and patriarchal oppression. When we meet Elisabeth again, her rosy cheeks have turned yellow from drinking and lack of sleep, her hair in a dyed blonde pin-up hairstyle, yet her tired eyes and moody attitude suggest emotional devastation. The successful agent turned fallen local cop paints the character’s portrait as one of disdain but always guided by a moral compass. In social circles, she is called out for her drinking, for being rude, stubborn, late; all the men surrounding her suggest to take a rest or to retire, yet her antagonistic attitude suggests (as in many cop films) a secret pathway to the truth or absolution.

Despite such a common trope of cop thrillers, The Miracle of the Sargasso Sea is anything but easily categorised. Its messy characters imbue the screen, whether primary or secondary, their shared despair in parallel, work in perfect harmony with the grey-green landscapes of Mesolongi. The film intertwines its symbolic realm, represented by the eels, specific to the place, with its psychological thread of spineless characters that have to undergo a transformation to claim their future, all framed by the serpentine wetlands of the fishing village. We learn from an English TV documentary that the eels of Mesolongi assemble to partake in a shared journey across the oceans to the Sargasso sea in the infamous Bermuda Triangle. A predestined path when they reach the age of sexual maturation, the eels need to physically adapt from swamp to sea, in order to secure a future generation. While the film does not make explicit comments on motherhood, it gives its two female protagonists the agency to choose their own (violent) initiation and earns their own grace and legacy, even self-respect.

By portraying women in their emotional gutter, going against the tide to self-assertion, Tzoumerkas makes a statement about small town patriarchal Greece, where “everyone falls in their rightful place”. Despite being Lord Byron’s death-place and resisting a year-long siege in 19th century, the heroic Mesolongi is also burning hot with xenophobia (calling out the Polish origins of Elisabeth), homophobia, and sexism. Overpowered by snarky middle-aged men, the town weighs down its female inhabitant, , repeatedly spat upon and ostracised (“Careful, she has a gun”, with a wishful smirk). Rita, on the other hand, is an outlet to a single person’s abuse – her wealthy brother Manolis. Basking in his pop singer glory, he imprisons Rita emotionally by guilt-tripping her over family trauma, and physically by confiscating her plane ticket to US. In an awfully claustrophobic sequence, Manolis urges his sister to sing a bouzouki duet in the nightclub he performs at, the pop song’s leitmotif being static living, with the chorus on repeat: “forever here…” Contrasting the neon party lights and the cheering crowd with the disgusted expression on Rita’s face alludes to a Hannekian treatment of psychological prison.

Еphiphanic episodes puncture each of the protagonists’ dreams of Paradise. For devoted Greek Orthodox Rita, these visions take the form of New Testament salvation and resurrection iconography, while Elisabeth dreams of a more Earthly heaven, a physical liberation from oppression and self-doubt. Both women share a view of despair about the workings of the world and its ruler — be it God or Devil. These surreal episodes recall theatrical genres of Bible story reenactments, as well as Passion plays, and the Biblical films.

In the depth of their human despondency, Rita and Elisabeth become their own saviours. While the film is saturated with Biblical quotes, icons of saints, and church choir songs, its form attends equally to the lowly human, animal, and nature. Pacifying all forms of life under the flag of future deliverance, the promise that each being will attain their most perfect form and self, The Miracle of the Sargasso Sea provides a convergence between religious submission and humanistic agency. It is said “Life is like a fish” (Christ symbolism on point) – thin at its beginning, wider at its middle, conjoining in one single point at its end. Similarly, this applies to the film’s body: thematically masked as a cop thriller, it plays around with symbolic layers, religion, history, and myths, to face its own notion of man-made paradise and soul-searching.

Screened as part of the 69th Berlin International Film Festival

Savina Petkova

By Savina Petkova

Savina Petkova is a PhD student at King’s College London and a regular contributor for Electric Ghost Magazine. She earned her Masters in Film Studies at University College London and has written for MUBI Notebook, Photogénie, Girls on Tops, Screen Queens, Moving Image Artists Journal, and other publications.