A new Australian film finds its inspiration in Homer’s The Odyssey.
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24 Jun 2011 - 5:29 PM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:09 PM

Though not the first man to be inspired to creativity by night-time visions of a naked woman, Ben Ferris ranks up there with those to have maximised the potential of such an event.

“In this dream was the figure of a woman walking around an abandoned mansion and it wasn't until later that I joined all the dots and related this figure in my dreams to the character of Penelope in Homer's The Odyssey,” recalls Ferris. This muse-like apparition has finally manifested as Penelope, an Australian-Croatian feature film co-production that is currently wowing crowds on its tour of specialist venues that cater for visual-arts installations.

Ferris' background studying classic literature caused him to unlock the mystery of his dream-state lady. “'[Homer's Penelope] is always presented as quite an enigmatic character, so there is a lot of room for interpretation, and that appealed to me,” he says. For those in the dark re the works of Homer and, in particular, the narrative function Penelope plays in The Odyssey, she was his faithful wife who sat pining for her husband for 20 years, remaining faithful and vigilant.

“The question I raise in the film is, 'Is this Homeric archetype of the waiting woman relevant in a contemporary context?',” Ferris ponders, pertinently questioning the contemporary relevance of updating Penelope's story. “Are these the sorts of expectations we have of a woman in a relationship, and how easy is it, or otherwise, for them to fulfil those expectations? As I was exploring her, I became interested in the tension between the woman and the archetype, and the pressures that living up to that archetype places upon the human being.”

“Penelope, as contemporary female, would feel a lot of the pressures that being this virtuous model would place upon her,” Ferris muses, “and I felt that particularly demanding upon her and, subsequently, upon me in trying to interpret (her plight).”

The film will be challenging, deliberately so, to viewers accustomed dialogue-heavy narratives and multiple edits per minutes (the lilting soundtrack from Max Richter, composer of music for Waltz with Bashir and Sarah's Key, proves invaluable). Ferris cites Aleksandr Sokurov's Russian Ark (2002) and the Hungarian maestro of single-take existentialism Bela Tarr, whose minimalist-motif swansong The Turin Horse (2010) both wowed and infuriated patrons at the recent Sydney Film Festival, as filmic inspirations. “If I want good dialogue, I tend to drift towards theatre or books,” says Ferris, whose single-take short film productions (The Kitchen, 2003; Eve, 2005; Transcendence, 2006; Tango Trois, 2006) caught the eye of philanthropic financiers in Croatia and led to the funding of Penelope.

“To me, the film presents another challenge to express ideas cinematically which is, ultimately, not a text-based language. It is image-driven and sound-driven; what I'm trying to do is explore a cinematic (form) devoid of dialogue.”

It is an aesthetic choice that will probably keep him off the shortlist for the Transformers 4 gig. “I'm not opposed to [mainstream cinema]”, he says, citing the works of Woody Allen as someone whose dialogue is verbally equivalent to visual artistry, “but I don't have a huge desire to be successful in the mainstream. For me, it's about serving the idea in the best way I can. While I admire filmmakers who are experts in their genre, be that thriller or horror or romcom, personally I prefer finding alternative ways to express ideas.”

Recalling the works of 'less-is-more' directors such as Paul Cox, Ferris is adamant his directing style both encapsulates and challenges the accepted definition of the film-vs-art debate. “Look, I always told people I was making 'a film', “ he laughs, “that was the understanding everyone had going into it. Film has very broad definition. I guess in the mainstream it has a very narrow definition, but the films that I am interested in broaden that definition, challenge it. In terms of Penelope, I'm happy for it not to be defined as one thing or another.”

Screening details: www.penelopa.com.au