Reviews

Hostage (Omiros) (2005)

Mark Labowskie

The Greeks may have invented drama, but this movie is where drama goes to die.


Hostage (Omiros)

Director: Constantine Giannaris
Cast: Stathis Papadopoulos, Theodora Tzimou, Yannis Stankoglou, Minas Hatzisawas, Arto Apartian
Distributor: Koch Lorber
MPAA rating: Unrated
Studio: Eurimages
First date: 2005
US DVD Release Date: 2007-04-13

Every year, quality foreign films screen at festivals around the world, drift about in limbo for awhile, and are finally released quietly to DVD, having been unable, for whatever reason, to secure a theatrical distributor. Many small gems and even some major works get lost in the shuffle this way. Hostage is not one of these films.

Alas, Constantine Giannaris’ film is more ineptly-made than even the lowliest TV movie or Skinemax erotic thriller. It takes what should have been a foolproof dramatic situation (based on a real event) and renders it utterly lifeless. As far as I can surmise (the plot is dished out in oblique fragments, as if to make it seem tantalizing), the movie is about a young Albanian man, Elion (Stathis Papadopoulos), who has been framed and convicted of gun possession charges by corrupt, racist Greek cops.

Out of prison and desperate to reunite with his scattered family, he takes a bus hostage with a shotgun and a grenade. After dumping most of the older passengers (he says the authorities will care more if he has young people on board), he contacts the police and demands a half million euros with which to make his way back to Albania. He also proclaims his innocence (that is, regarding the prison term) to reporters and vows to expose the corrupt police upon returning to his home county. Interspersed with the hostage drama (the bus steadily heads towards the Albanian border while the police and the media scurry) are cryptic flashbacks to Elion’s life pre-hostage-taking and a few scenes showing Elion’s mother wringing her hands.

Hostage situations are irresistible in movies because they’re instant drama: clear stakes, obvious tension, and a handy compression of space and time. Dog Day Afternoon, The Petrified Forest, heck even Speed (which also takes place on a bus), have successfully mined this territory. The result may not always be high art, but it’s also rarely boring. This one manages to be.

The problems begin with Papadopoulos. Hostage movies demand a compelling hostage-taker, someone who can be riveting in their charisma / insanity / volatility / whatever. It’s unfair to say that Papadopoulos is no Pacino; the problem is that he’s not even a Corey Feldman. From beginning to end, his face never loses its blank, empty look, and his voice never gains any shading or nuance beyond robotic monotone. The fire that’s supposedly inside Elion -- the rage against anti-Albanian prejudice, the longing to clear his name and reunite with his family, a seemingly mother-induced need to assert his masculinity -- is never made remotely palpable. He expresses all the urgency of a suburban kid angling for a discount on a Big Gulp, and because he never seems even mildly threatening, you keep wondering why the passengers don’t try to stage an uprising.

The hostage situation in general is ineptly handled. None of the passengers are given any personality or individuality and their responses to Elion are uniformly the same throughout: glum, resigned, monotonous. Everyone speaks in the same, slow, Serious Movie voice, and Giannaris totally discounts the unpredictable fluctuations of mood that can occur in such intense situations: no wild bursts of rage, hysteria, or even humor, no unexpected bonding or gestures of compassion. Two of the passengers, it develops, are in an adulterous relationship, but everyone else is a sea of morose faces.

Anyway, it seems as if half the movie was left in the editing room because there are all kinds of gaps on the most basic plot level. At one point, the camera drifts out the window and we see for the first time that an entire police cabal has surrounded the bus. Almost instantly, maybe offscreen, Elion establishes a relationship with the media and begins bartering and grandstanding.

Some of the passengers go through emotional changes (without emotional expression) that the audience can only guess at. One man almost becomes Elion’s ally, addressing him by his first name and appealing to his conscience, yet who this man is and how he suddenly formed (again, offscreen) a close relationship with the person taking him hostage is never broached. The characters are going through things and the audience is stranded behind 10 sheets of Plexiglas, trying to guess at their emotional states and motivations (it’s never a good sign when a character sighs, only a half hour into a movie, “it’s finally over”.)

Of course Giannaris’ primary concern is exploring the racial tensions between Greeks and Albanians. And perhaps that’s the source of the film’s problems: he got so caught up in his social message, he neglected to address even the simplest mechanics of plot, dialogue, acting, and dramatic tension (or worse, thought such concerns beneath him). But in any work of art, the message should not come first but last; it should evolve organically from a truthfully observed dramatic situation. If there’s no truth to be found here, how can we possibly accredit whatever “deeper meaning” it might have? For that matter, Giannaris’ social insight doesn’t get much more nuanced than, “Some Greeks are prejudiced against Albanians and that’s bad.” But what are the social and economic strains that feed that prejudice? Why are the police in this film so crude and unfeeling that they eventually treat the hostages as badly as the hostage-taker?

All Giannaris does to convey his message is provide ham-fisted speeches, like the one in which a passenger assails Elion (the man taking him hostage, remember) with a long screed about how Albanians are “hillbillies” and “hicks” who like to “throw their weight around in our country”, laying out his social position in a neat package with a bow on top. It’s the kind of speech a white Southerner might have given in a well-meaning American movie made 40 years ago. But by now we should demand more than characters who act like they woke up one morning and said, “I’m gonna be prejudiced.” We should demand more than black and white morality and characters who talk like screenwriters. The Greeks may have invented drama, but this movie is where drama goes to die.

The extra consists of a half-hour making-of feature that actually tells you more about the film’s intentions than the film itself. For instance, the director explains that the bus is “an ark of modern Greece.” Oy vey.

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