Certain to be one of the more divisive Competition films to have screened at this year's Berlinale once the dust had settled, Yannis Economides hogties and drags his national cinema from the shadow of Yorgos Lanthimos with fourth feature Stratos (2014), a bleak, brooding noir deliciously tainted by bad debt, ill-advised investments and good old fashioned greed. The granite-faced Vangelis Mourikis plays the bread factory worker/hitman of the film's title, pounding filo by day whilst filling his marks with lead by night. Obsidian black in tone and slow-burning in nature, Economides' latest tests whilst it triumphs.
Fulfilling contracts assigned to him by a man known only as 'The Painter', Stratos makes a lucrative living from his skill with a firearm despite his country's ongoing economic stupor. Committed to his daytime position on a mercilessly mundane factory line as a suitable ruse (or perhaps, as another suggests, to uphold his working-class identity as the dough rolls in), contentment - for him at least - is to be found at the bottom of a bottle in his ground-floor apartment. However, when the brother of an imprisoned former employer asks for Stratos' help in freeing the man who once saved the assassin's life, our protagonist's moral code goes into overdrive. How far will the baker-cum-butcher be willing to go to assist his con 'friend'?
An almost complete departure from the Lanthimos school of surrealism-laden satire (see Dogtooth, Alps), Economides gradually unravels an Athens of thieves and embezzlers, where blood most certainly isn't thicker than water. A solitary gun for hire, Stratos' only companions are the 'family' across the road - particularly their eight-year-old daughter, Katerina. As new, shark-like potential employers begin to encircle 'the little fish' (to use the film's original Greek title), our wandering ronin encounters increasing pressure to revert back to the barbaric psychopath he once reputedly was and to take up hired contract killing full-time. And yet, it's only when the still pure Katerina's safety is threatened by these men that his past self begins to gradually catch up with him.
Bringing to mind some of the great hitman films of the past, as well as recent nihilistic arthouse offerings such as Cristi Puiu's Aurora (2010), Economides addresses Greece's economic and moral decline with an unwavering sense of cynicism and grit. In one particular scene, Stratos is asked to despatch an affluent young male at a finance company. When asked to confess the crime for which he is to die, he boasts about the successful embezzlement of his own brother's money. Disgusted by this act of familial betrayal, Stratos takes one of the man's ears rather than his life, striding out of the office to a chorus of blood-curdling howls. This may not be Chinatown, but Economides has summoned forth a nightmarish vision of a European nation in near-complete collapse.
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