A day-in-the-life of four pregnant couples in modern Athens, but with stories that differ drastically to the usual ones of hope and joy. One couple deals with a marital crisis, while another reconsiders a premature pregnancy while looking down the barrel of a mad man's gun. The draining realities of IVF unite and then tear apart two women who have shared the same man. An Iraqi immigrant, alone in her apartment, gives birth with the assistance of her stalker/next door neighbour.

A challenging look at expectant couples.

GREEK FILM FESTIVAL: There is something truly nerve rattling about this tough picture, shot in grimy sun blasted tones and set in modern day Athens. In this bleak, stark drama, we are in the company of misery.

The movie’s sense of emotional claustrophobia is so intense

It’s a movie – mostly – about warring couples. We don’t get a chance to see any of the characters enjoying happy times and each other. From the moment we drop into the action, the first 'verbal shots’ of malice, discontent, distrust and resentment have already been fired, so to speak.

The movie’s sense of emotional claustrophobia is so intense I thought I’d choke on the bile that spews forth from the characters. The only relief is that, once over, I could divorce myself from this on-screen fight club long enough to appreciate the gifts of writer/director Yorgos Gikapeppas, which are considerable.

The movie is a poly-narrative; a quartet of mini-stories linked by a common narrative idea. In this case, each of the couples here – who are a cross section of Athenians: rich, poor, immigrant, and middle-class – must deal with pregnancy.

Each couple is in crisis and each are in a different stage of their lives. In movies the convention is to uphold the idea of 'children’ as sacred; their imminent arrival, within the bounds of good sense, a thing to behold with understandable fear but mostly joy. But Gikapeppas has no time for sentimentality; a new child here means debt, trouble and being trapped in a kind of prison. Here, IV, its cost and frustrations, only tears at a relationship; an unexpected conception only accelerates the end game of a warring middle-aged couple; abortion is the go-to solution for a young man who enjoys his girlfriend’s sex but cannot seem to stand the sight of her.

Still, Gikapeppas does offer in one of his vignettes the possibility for hope (and relief from the quarrelsome mood of the other plotlines) in the story of Nadine (Kika Georgiou), an Iraqi immigrant, who is in the final stages of her pregnancy.

We meet her in tiny, cell-like apartment imploring her rascally, cranky husband to stay because she knows the baby is coming soon. Gikapeppas ingeniously finds a way to project Nadine’s sense of trapped helplessness; she looks both enormous and small. Not much real drama happens in these scenes. Nadine’s anxiety hits critical mass, and meanwhile she spends her time hiding from a neighbour, a scruffy young man. Nadine may have cause to worry; late in the movie, Gikapeppas reveals that this guy has 'stalked’ her with a camera. Yet, once Nadine’s water breaks, he becomes the Good Neighbour, and helps her through the birth.

At first, Gikapeppas seems to have no interest in this kind of heightened action; the film seems a talk fest. But this looks ultimately like a deliberate bit of misdirection. The second half of the film explodes with plot and incident; there’s a mad gunman on the loose, an attempted suicide, a tragic coincidence, and where one life finishes, another one starts. Or to put it another way, the characters here seem convinced that they are, in some way, in control of their fate. But Gikapeppas sees this kind of conceit as a folly.

All the acting is fine. Particularly good are Natalia Kalimeratzi as Liza and Vassilis Bisbikis as Fotis, the young couple who spend most of the movie stranded out in the bush on the outskirts of Athens arguing the relative merits of an abortion, between bouts of sweaty sex.

But I think it’s Georgiou, who won best actress at the Hellenic Academy Awards last year, that is truly striking. Her performance is almost free of dialogue. It’s retrained and quiet. There’s a world of pain, and optimism just in the look of her eyes. This film is so brutal yet so poetic I’m not sure whether Gikapeppas has any time for cheap and pious morals. The film, though, is somehow weirdly optimistic. It depicts a cruel world, and yet people survive and move on because kindness is still possible.