Reviewed by James Karas
Riverbanks (Όχθες) is a sensitive, moving and exquisite film about the fate of illegal migrants who are smuggled into Greece from Turkey. The film understates the inherent violence of transporting people across a river into a foreign country and it neither condemns nor praises the activity. In the end it is Panos Karkanevatos’s elegy for all those involved in the conveyance of children, adults and drugs from one bank to the other of a threatening river.
The central character is Yannis (Andreas Konstantinou), a young soldier, whose image dominates the film. He is a loner, an outsider, with an enigmatic facial expression that denotes a troubled mind or a lost soul in search of something. He is part of a small platoon of soldiers assigned to find and remove deadly mines in a grassy meadow beside the river. Yannis has a special instinct for locating mines and a spiritual side that drives him.
He meets Chryssa (Elena Mavridou), a single mother who is involved on the receiving side of the river where people and drugs land from the Turkish side. She is involved not so much in illegal trade as in the eternal task of simple survival.
In the opening scene, Yannis is driving on a side road with Chryssa and Myrto, a young child, in the back seat. Something happens and we next see Yannis in a hospital and then in a police station. The rest of the film is a flashback to Istanbul where smugglers arrange for the separate transportation of Kurdish children and adults across the river and the balance of the story. We will return back to the beginning near the end of the film.
In the tone set for the film, Karkanevatos presents the arrangement for the smuggling of the migrants in a low-keyed manner in we which we feel the undertones of danger, fear and emotional distress without any excessive dramatics on the part of the director.
The smuggling does not go well. There is loss of life and backpacks. One of the “lost” is a young boy who wanders across the countryside carrying his backpack. The fate of the boy is done simply and effectively by showing us his expressionless face as he discards his backpack and ends up in a gas station. Karkanevatos creates an emotional peak by just showing the young boy biting into a sandwich that is given to him by the gas station owner. The backpack of the boy and the other backpacks that are mentioned have some significance.
In the meantime Yannis and Chryssa fall in love as they engage in their dance of death. Yannis performs his dance with the unexploded mines while she engages with the smugglers. Yannis’s movements across the minefield may be taken to literally resemble the steps of a danse macabre while Chryssa participates in the equally moribund movements in her meetings with the smugglers.
Chryssa and Yannis consummate their love in a pool and it is a scene as much of passion as it is of baptism and spiritual union of the two. In a later scene, Yannis will bang his head against a concrete wall seeking a sign from Chryssa. I will not give more details lest I spoil the dramatic end of the film.
Karkanevatos, who wrote the script with Isidoros Zourgos and directed the film, uses the Greek countryside, a slow-moving but threatening River Evros and shots of Istanbul for the large exterior scenes. The grassy minefield, the hospital, the army barracks and the houses are adequate background for a story that is not about external drama.
The film struck me as a symphonic poem composed almost entirely in a minor key. The stories of the smuggling of people and drugs, the relationship of Yannis and Chryssa, the dangerous river, the search for mines whirled in my mind as musical themes that could be developed, varied, and recapitulated in a stunning musical composition.
The final scene could provide a dissonant coda that dissolves into a heart-rending finale as we see that last tableau of the film: a single shoe washed on the shore of the river.
Riverbanks was shown as part of the 12th Annual European Union Film Festival. All 28 members of the European Union show one film each. Many of the films are shown in Canada for the first time and some are world premieres. The Festival runs from November 10 to November 24, 2016 and all the films are shown at The Royal Theatre, 608 College Street, Toronto, Ontario. www.euffto.com and www.riverbanksmovie.gr.