Photographer Isaac's (Ewen Leslie) father's death in suburban Sydney reveals the schism in his family and prompts a return to the ancestral homeland. On a trip to his parent's village in Greece, he learns something of his father's cursed history. At first he dismisses the revelation as superstitious nonsense, but over the course of his travels – from Greece to Paris to Budapest – Isaac is forced to confront the anti-Semitism of the past, the embedded bigotry in the bones of Europe and the nature of inherited guilt. It is on this fateful trip that Isaac will learn the truth of his family's migration to Australia, their refusal to ever return to Greece, and the burden he continues to bear as a consequence of acts committed years before his birth.
SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL: In writer/director Tony Krawitz’s adaptation of Christos Tsiolkas’ 2005 novel, death hangs like a virus, cultivated by a ferocious anti-Semitism.
It moves along like a thriller, which is a neat trick since the actual
narrative is episodic and without any conventional suspense
Hell is for Jews and Muslims declares an old Greek woman early on in the story. She’s a recent widow whose husband’s death is enshrouded in a mist of anti-Semitic feeling; later, a young Arab scorns 'the Jews’ in a tirade that dismisses the Holocaust as a diversionary strategy now used by Semites in the early 21st century as a way to mask Zionist aggression and atrocity. Moments later, this person, a young woman, is taken away, arrested as 'alien’ in a foreign land.
The plot of the film concerns Issac (Ewen Leslie), a thirty-something gallery artist of some renown (or that’s what I understood, anyway) who specialises in photographic images. An Australian of Greek parents, who, as the movie opens, feels little or no connection with the past of his immediate ancestors, Issac is planning his first visit to Greece. Issac’s desire to return to his ancestral home sends his dad (William Zappa, great) a little nuts. Moments later, the old man is dead in a car wreck. Shot in a way that implies this accident is in fact a suicide, it’s a scene that sets up a dense complex of theme and incident that the following narrative elaborates upon; there is nothing 'good’ in the past and Europe is a cemetery of dark secrets best left undisturbed. Any close encounter will only bring grief; Europe is a crypt of horror.
The tension of the film lies in Isaac’s internal journey from complacent observer to active participant. Throughout the film, as Issac travels through Europe, he is assailed by racist rants. He dismisses all the hatred he hears as ignorance. Still, he seems a man of little or no convictions, personal, political, whatever. In a deep way, his 'isolationism’ and ignorance leaves him vulnerable and at the same time dangerous; he is in a deep sense 'innocent’ and well-meaning but he is also unformed. He is an out gay man who seems to have no strong emotional needs, confiding his troubles to no one and preferring anonymous sex to intimacy. As the film’s dream-like narrative evolves, Issac comes to the realisation that he cannot remain uninvolved and remote"¦ there are choices to make and sides to take.
Tsiolkas' novel, which I have not read, was described by one reviewer as having, in part, a 'fairytale’ aspect. The book, I gather, was epic, with a large slab of the narrative taking place in WWII. The movie’s action is restricted to a contemporary time setting, though the story moves from Australia, to Greece and Paris and finally Hungary. The look and feel is immediate, but at the same time other worldly; there is a sense of a life out of balance. The hand held camera gets into the faces of the characters, rather than dwells on décor or landscape; the lighting creates a sickly sallow palette and remains throughout doggedly unpretty, and the sound design, supervised by the gifted Sam Petty, is full bassy, ominous and indistinct groans that suggest a moan of regret. The style had me questioning 'reality’: is this film taking place in the 'head’ of Issac, so to speak? The clues that the film is a sort of fever dream for its increasingly tortured protagonist pile up; the plot abounds with ancient family curses, superstition, mysterious characters, and cryptic encounters.
Soon after arriving in Greece – accompanied by his dead dad’s ashes – Issac meets a young boy, played by Kodi Smit-McPhee. The kid, Josef, apparently an illegal refugee (or at least that’s what I think he was) pleads for help. Issac promises assistance but chance intervenes. The kid disappears. Still, like the dead daughter in Nic Roeg’s Don’t Look Now, Josef and his sad, pleading look haunts Issac wherever he goes in Europe. Just how Josef connects with the family curse that Issac comes to accept as 'real’ is a plot spoiler, so I will not elaborate here further except to say its central to the film’s brooding 'sins of the father visited upon the sons’ theme.
Much of this film’s pleasures are incidental; the film’s dreaminess is captivating, it moves along like a thriller, which is a neat trick since the actual narrative is episodic and without any conventional suspense. And I liked the acting, especially William Zappa as the father and Marton Csokas, who plays Issac’s estranged older brother.
Dark, and emotionally claustrophobic, Dead Europe is tough to sit through. Talky and severe, it is a puzzle film, a movie where one is asked to work hard at deciphering its strangeness. It’s a film that describes a very real horror, and you feel that dread, but in the end, I was at a loss to understand it.