Filmmaker Stathis Athanasiou’s strange and otherworldly Alpha is a visionary work of film, referencing the poetic realism of Marcel Carné as much as it does the propulsive terror of a slasher film. In the widening scope of the film’s political allegories, certain concessions are made on the state of affairs that reside in the offices of government and the ones that are rooted deep within the heart. It’s not entirely an easy film to watch, if only for the abstracted narrative, a semiotic labyrinth of allusions both political and spiritual. But viewed as it is meant to be — a tone-poem of food-for-thought — Alpha’s arresting visuals allow the viewer to submerge herself in a story that unfolds with uncertainty and mystery.
Based on the Greek myth of Antigone, Alpha tells the story of a woman who hides herself away during a rash of riots brewing in her home city. She continues to distance herself as the violence intensifies, determined to protect her sheltered existence from any disruptive outside forces that threaten to intrude. When Alpha refuses to help a young man who has been caught up in the riots storming the city, her inaction leads to dire consequences, which results in a surprising shift in narrative. The second half of the story sees the young woman now banished to a barren, parched no man’s land, a timeless place with no geographical designation which will test the limits of her sanity.
In the assemblage of the narrative structure, Athanasiou manages some impressive feats; there’s an almost sensual layering of image and sound, which often reconfigures whenever the narrative introduces new action. Consider the film’s opening, which cleverly presents a deceptive sequence of events: in the compressed air of shallow breathing, marching feet and the nearly silent sweep of ominous wind that circles in the background, the aural-visual dynamics work to give the impression that we are watching a slasher film. As the camera roves interrogatively, almost prowling the premises with the determined persistence of a stalker, Athanasiou employs a delicate segue into the poetic realism of Alpha’s internal world, her unobstructed home life.
In the emerging delusion of Alpha’s world, the present life and past memories get mixed up as the narrative methodically unfolds, revealing both the visage of dreams and reality alike. It is perhaps not unlikely that Athanasiou finds a reference in Meshes of the Afternoon, Maya Deren’s nightmarish exploration on the routines of domestic homelife. Like Deren, Alpha’s leading actress Serafita Grigoriadou affects a similar point of obfuscation, in which a woman at her window searches the landscape of an outer otherworld of which she’s hidden away from. Grigoriadou, whose own psychologically-encased performance recalls the quiet dignity of Isabelle Huppert, shows in one stretch Alpha’s vacillation and utter aggression as the story shifts from its fixed time and place of an urban Greek city to an open netherworld of vast arid land. As Alpha roams the parched, barren land (her punishment both corporeal and spiritual), the humanistic layerings slowly devolve to basic, primal animal instincts. Exploring the philosophies to be found in Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit, her confinement further espouses the ideology that hell is not only other people but also one’s self. Serving as an eerie reminder of the existentialist principals in question is the ominous, all-seeing eye imprinted on the back of Alpha’s dress — God, perhaps?
Of Grigoriadou’s performance, Athanasiou speaks of her intuitive approach in a role with little dialogue. “We discovered very many things in rehearsal, but we never wondered as to what the direction and the formation of the character would be,” he says. “What Serafita did exceptionally in this role is that she managed to transform her character from a secure, closed, fearful person, to an open, loving, destroyed human, without speaking. Considering what the character has to go through and how she eventually ends up, it’s a great achievement for Serafita the fact that she let the soul of the character shine through her eyes without having to do much else.”
Grigoriadou speaks to PopMatters about her role in the film and why Alpha is an important step in Greece’s troubled film industry.
Alpha (Photo by Argyris Drolapas)
How did you first get your start in film?
It was in 2002. I had just finished Drama School in Athens, and Yiannis Economides was looking for young actors for his first feature Matchbox, a film that became instantly very popular. It was a film that brought a new breath in Greek cinema. He chose me to play Angela, a young lower class girl from an Athenian working class neighbourhood. The part was small, but the experience was unique.
Having worked in the Greek film industry, what do you notice that is especially unique or different in the way films are made in Greece?
The Greek film industry is unique in the sense that it doesn’t exist!
Alpha is an art film for sure, but it is created on a level of epic proportions. First of all, what attracted you to this role? I notice that much of the role depends on body language and nuance; dialogue is minimal. Secondly, once you did accept the role, how did you go about creating the character of Alpha?.
Creating Alpha was a two year journey. The script was evolving all the time, from the first meeting until the last rehearsal. We tried a lot of angles and approaches. The most intriguing part in Alpha’s character was her journey from a closed and secluded person to the person she becomes in the end. It was her effort to let the pain to the surface and allow herself to mourn. It was very tempting to be a frozen and emotionally dead woman and evolve to someone who can cry, whose eyes are finally open and who is alive moments before her death.
Alpha is essentially divided into two parts. The first part takes place in the city, where Alpha exists as a city-dweller who is somehow detached from the surrounding action, trouble and violence. She wants no part of it, and she refuses to help out her brother who is a part of it. In the second half of the film, she is banished to a desolate landscape as punishment for a crime she did not really have part in. Here, she is still detached from her surroundings. But where she was once detached from her emotions when she was living in the city, she becomes increasingly (and uncomfortably) aware of her feelings in her banishment. That is, she becomes more in tune with her emotions when it seems to count the least: in a place with no one to share her feelings with. What are you ideas about the ways in which Alpha develops from her isolated existence in the city to her isolated existence in the barren land where she is confined to?
In the city, Alpha is safe. Everything is in its place, everything is in order and under control. In the city, Alpha has no reason to challenge reality or the status quo. In the forest, on the other hand, she is in a totally barren place. She confronts that from which she has been trying to run away all her life; she can’t avoid her feelings there. This makes her angry, furious, and makes her feel guilty. She knows she is guilty, because she didn’t help her brother and because she never took a stand against what was going on around her. The forest, in other words, is a timeless place, where Alpha comes in contact with her childhood memories, childhood guilts, and nightmares. The forest is a sort of purgatory for her.
Alpha is also based somewhat on the Greek myth of Antigone. Did you read the myth beforehand for the role? Also, what lessons or themes in the myth do you think carry over into the film?
Yes, we read and re-read both the myth and Sophocles’ tragedy many times. What we definitely took from the ancient Antigone is her ability to act, disregarding all human law, in favour of what is known as “divine law”. Our Antigone is much more human and flawed, and is one (or many) steps behind the Antigone we know from the myth. She isn’t and doesn’t want to be a heroine, but she is forced by the circumstances to declare her position and only then will she outgrow herself.
Alpha also makes a political allegory. Do you think this allegory is exclusive to Greece’s social culture? In what ways are the sentiments of this film very Greek? Does it make a wider statement on a more global level about emotional resistance and human will?
It resonates very much to the current situation in Greece, but it is much more global than that. Alpha is a film about lack of will. In that sense it is very relevant to everyone, regardless of their country of origin. Another subject it touches is how safe can one be inside or outside the system. Nowadays no one feels safe no matter if he is inside the system or not. The sensation of insecurity and doubt is something that becomes stronger and stronger in all of the western world. Today more than ever, we must make our stance clear if we are not to perish under the invisible Creon that demands irrational things from us.
As with Alpha, DOS, is also based on a Greek myth. Director Stathis seems to often use Greek myth as a way to explain the modern-day human condition. As with Alpha, you play a character of Greek myth named Aphrodite. Once again, this film, like Alpha, employs a surrealist aesthetic. Can you discuss a little about your role in the film?
My part in DOS was a strange one, since I had nowhere to begin with. How do you portray a goddess in a human form, that exists mainly inside someone’s head? How does she speak? What octave is her voice? How does she walk? We’ve had lots of conversations with Stathis about that and then rehearsed a lot, discovering many things. Finally, when we came to shoot, we did something quite different from what we did in rehearsals because it felt right during shooting and I believe it was. Right now I can’t think of any either way I could have played that part. I hope it’s because it was a good acting choice and not because I’m now familiar with it!
Stathis seems really concerned about pushing Greek cinema in a certain direction, breaking convention in order to help revive the industry that has been somewhat suffering financially. What are your thoughts on what Stathis is doing with film and what makes it so special and different from a lot of other Greek cinema?
Stathis is really ahead of his league, always trying to realize his dreams. If the current way of doing things doesn’t have room for them, he can create the milieu for them himself. Alpha is a great example of a project creating its own unique, personal path, because there was no place for it in the established system. What I think makes his work unique is that not only he has an amazing artistic style, he is equally concerned with presenting his work to the audience exactly how he wants to and always in an out-of-the-box approach.