There is a moment of perfect heartache toward the end of Merciless Gods, the short story collection by Greek-Australian author Christos Tsiolkas. A haunted image captured in words that linger long after the book is closed, Porn 1 depicts the anguish of an Italian-Australian mother who - following the tragic news of her estranged son’s death - resorts to buying a gay porn video he stars in to grab one last glimpse.
In little over 15 pages, Tsiolkas crafts an unforgettable narrative fraught with love, longing and loss. The mother’s actions unnerve, and yet there’s an understandable tragedy to her need, loaded with shame and judgement, that deeply affected filmmaker Jamieson Pearce as he read it. “The hopelessness of her grief just really hit me,” he says.
Fascinated by her desperate action, Pearce was inspired to adapt the story into a short film, Adult, and explore the unspoken drama behind it. “You’ve got this boy from a traditional family where sexuality isn’t really spoken of. It’s about repression and how damaging that is, and the shame of being gay, what that can do.”
A fan of Tsiolkas’ work, particularly the novel Dead Europe, he approached the author in 2015. “He just asked to see my previous films before giving me the rights and I guess he was suitably encouraged,” Pearce chuckles.
Sharing Tsiolkas’ Greek heritage, Pearce decided to alter the character’s Italian background on the page to Greek in the film. Screening at this year’s Greek Film Festival as part of the satellite Greek Australian Short Film FestivaI, Adult was originally presented as an immersive art installation at Blender Studios last year, then again at this year’s Melbourne Queer Film Festival.
That experience recreated the story’s major setting, the sex shop where the mother first faces the indignity of purchasing the video, then the living room where she endure both the trauma and the emotional release of watching it.
“There’s something masochistic about that, I suppose, and also just terribly poignant, in that that’s the only way - at least one last way - that she can sort of communicate with her son’s ghost,” Pearce says. “I wanted to tap into the voyeurism of her seeing something she should never really see as a mother, and also the audience seeing something that they aren’t meant to see, too; this very private grief and this transgression on her behalf.”
Tsiolkas, who read drafts of the screenplay, enjoyed the end result. Pearce draws on the idea of touch, or its absence, from his close reading of the text. And so there’s the eroticism of the porn film within the film, the disconnect of the mother unable to reach into the television and embrace her lost son, and fleeting glimpses of a yearned for past when they held hands.
Victoria Haralabidou is incredible in the central role. Interestingly, she also played a less distant mother in the recent television adaptation of Tsiolkas’ novel Barracuda. Pearce recalls first seeing her at the 2005 Greek Film Festival in Pantelis Voulgaris’ film Brides.
“I always remembered her beautiful, powerful face,” he says. “She’s hugely talented and I kind of doubted the choice for a moment, because I’d always imagined someone a bit older, but I think we made it work.”
Haralabidou conveys most of the heavy lifting wordlessly, from initial embarrassment and tetchy impatience to an outpouring of grief and love. “Because she’s so alone in the trajectory of the story and the slow piecing together of events, I just wanted to keep it focused on the images and, in that way, I think you can get inside a character’s head more, with a talented actor, rather than over-writing it.”
Little Ones Theatre founder Stephen Nicolazzo was similarly inspired by Porn 1. It was the catalyst to adapt Merciless Gods for a stage production that embraces several of the short stories contained therein. It will move to Sydney’s Griffin Theatre in November after opening in Melbourne earlier this year.
“It had all of the theatrical promise of an opera, rich language, visceral imagery and an almost Almodovar-like sense of melodrama that resonated deeply with my aesthetic,” Nicolazzo says, adding that it, “deals with the intersection of immigrant cultural histories, sexuality, and shame-seeing queerness through the eyes of an older Italian woman who could have quite easily been my nonna in Thomastown.”
Family, after all, is at the heart of this story, even if it is broken down. “The opportunity to make a work that was so connected to my family experience was also a major part of what drew me to it,” Nicolazzo reveals. “Porn 1 was the first one selected and the entire production was really built around the emotional heft, scale and magic of this story.”
With the Porn 1 section set to Puccini’s "Musetta’s Waltz", Nicolazzo heightens the drama. Jennifer Vuletic, in a bravura performance, also sings Italian pop diva Mina’s most famous song, “Non Credere” (meaning ‘disbelief’). “Every decision we made when staging this story was about the passion and emotion of Tsiolkas’ character taking the spotlight in all her tormented, beautiful and tender glory,” Nicolazzo adds.
Much like Pearce, he has long been drawn to Tsiolkas’ work and now calls the author friend. “Loaded resonated for me as I was coming out of Thomastown and the burbs of Greensborough as a queer wog kid. I had a burning desire to transgress, and reading Tsiolkas allowed me to imagine what that might be like in practice. His work is a place to explore the dark, brutal, yet also tender unspoken desires each of us possess, and I found that comforting as a young adult.”