Ilias Logothetis and Mirto Alikaki
By James Karas
Near the end of Maria Douza’s first feature film A Place Called Home, Kyriakos walks up the stairs of his mansion for the last time. When he reaches the top we see a dimly visible poster of Constantine Cavafy, the quintessential poet of the Greek diaspora and the writer of Ithaca, the archetypal poem of the return of the native.
Douza’s marvelous film is very much about the uprooted Greek who finds himself in a foreign land, be it willingly or forcefully, and seeks his Ithaca.
Kyriakos (played superbly by Ilias Logothetis) owns a mansion and has been the mayor of his city for some twenty years. As a child he ended up in Serbia at the end of the Greek Civil War and spent his formative years there until he was repatriated in 1963.
His daughter Eleni (Mirto Alikaki) studied in England and when the film begins she is appointed professor of cardiology at a university in London. Her elderly father asks her to go and see him and she arrives just before Easter with her young daughter Anna. Significantly, she has married an English banker who has been sent to Shanghai by his employer, a failed bank.
Eleni finds a Serbian woman named Nina (Mirjiana Karanovic) living in Kyriakos’s house and taking care of him. Nina’s sad eyes and expressive face encapsulate the fate of millions of people who were displaced by the political convulsions of the twentieth century. There is a moving story about Nina and her daughter and a satisfying conclusion. I am deliberately not giving many details about the plot. Douza has written a fine story that keeps our attention to the very end and I do not want to spoil it for people who have not seen the movie.
The main plotline concerns Eleni. She has returned to her roots but she no longer belongs there. Her return becomes a journey to the past: her memory of her mother, her relations with her father, her association with her friend Markos (Nikos Orfanos) and all the spirits that she left behind when she went abroad.
The Greek title of the film is The Tree and the Swing, an apt image of the roots that bind us to the homeland and pleasant childhood memories of swinging on the swing that is tied to the tree. Not all the memories are pleasant and the tree will be felled by a chain saw, the swing will fall to the ground, the ties bind some people to Ithaca will be torn. As you will recall, Cavafy warned us that Ithaca may have nothing more to give us.
Alikaki gives a splendid performance as the woman torn between obligations to husband, daughter, career, father and homeland. She returns to Greece with mixed emotions and matters become dramatically worse as she discovers what happened in the past and what her father wants her to do now.
Kyriakos is a successful politician at the end of his career. He wants to leave a legacy to his community and through him we get a glance at Greek politics. Logothetis broodingly characterizes him as patriarchal, somewhat domineering but in the end as a man who lived through Greece’s worst period and has retained his decency and even his patriotism.
Most of the film is shot in the rather dark interior of Kyriakos’s mansion but there are some marvelous exterior scenes by the sea. Douza dwells lovingly on the faces of her characters and lets their expressions tell their story. The mansion is a dwelling and a symbol but we never get a sustained view of the exterior of the house. I wish Douza had given us a more compelling image of the house the way she did of the faces of the characters.
A Place Called Home is a poignant, rather dour film that is meticulously plotted and judiciously directed. One of the last tableaux, carefully chosen no doubt, is of an Easter dinner, with all the symbols of reconciliation, redemption and resurrection. But Douza does not stoop to a soppy conclusion. Eleni does not stay in Ithaca; the Greek of the diaspora remains far away from the tree and the swing because they are no longer there. Unlike Kyriakos’s, Eleni’s journey has just begun and she will perhaps drop anchor in her homeland again when she is old, full of experiences and much wiser.
A Place Called Home was shown at the 10th European Union Film Festival held in Toronto between November 15 and 30, 2014.