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Berlinale 2019: ‘The Miracle of the Sargasso Sea’ Plunges Into the Heart of Darkness

A scabrous study in small-town dysfunction, The Miracle of the Sargasso Sea (To thávma tis thálassas ton Sargassón) is a dirty plunge into the heart of darkness that pulls no punches in its depiction of human depravity. A meandering, generously paced police procedural, it’s full of ambitious swings, even if not all of them manage to meet. While worth watching for its no-holds-barred performances and consistently dark vision, Sargasso Sea ultimately can’t harness its ideas into something truly powerful.

Sargasso starts with Elizabeth (Angeliki Papoulia), a police chief in Athens successfully raiding a terrorist group. These terrorists don’t look particularly threatening — the film opening on them smoking cigarettes and having sex with each other — but this seems to be intentional, showing how sex and violence intertwine in the most perverse of ways.

Everything here is rotten. In a decision that stinks of corruption, Elizabeth is shuffled from Athens to the small city of Messolonghi. Notable for being Byron’s final resting place, it relies mostly upon its eel fishing industry. Ten years later, we meet Rita (Youla Boudali), who slices them open in a factory. Suffering from some kind of undiagnosed mental illness, she is an evidently unstable woman, living under the thumb of her far more successful brother. Neither women meet until deep into the film’s two-hour runtime, yet both are united by the desire to get out far away.

Every year, eels make an extraordinary journey from the Mediterranean to the Sargasso Sea in the North Caribbean in order to give birth. For humans, escaping has always been a little trickier. When seven thousand Messolonghian people tried to leave the city after a siege by the Ottoman Forces in 1825, only one thousand survived. This geographical/historical framework presents Messolonghi as a form of purgatory, its evils perpetuated by an unrelenting patriarchy. (It’s worth also considering that the title references Wide Sargasso Sea, a rebuttal to the mad-woman-in-the-attic-trope established in Jane Eyre). Refusing to explain things through much exposition, Tzoumerkas’ presentation of the themes allows the horrors to slowly build, leading to a horrific reveal. 

In The Miracle of the Sargasso Sea, Elizabeth’s redemption and Rita’s survival are presented as co-dependent. Will the bad cop from hell be able to drag them both out of the muck? Considering how far she’s descended, it’s hard to say. Some antiheroes turn up to work hungover; Elizabeth turns up barely unable to walk. This doesn’t stop her from maliciously insulting her male colleagues whenever they ask her if she’s OK, however, and Papoulia’s line-readings popping off with real venom. When she confiscates some coke, she uses it to help sober up. Only the horrors of what she is up against  (which I won’t ruin here) render her plight in any way sympathetic.

Angeliki Papoulia is brilliant. By refusing to make her character likable in any way, she actually becomes kind of admirable. If the film’s pacing was a little quicker and its ideas more concise, we could have had a tidy and smart cop thriller on our hands. As it stands, The Miracle of the Sargasso Sea gets lost under a deluge of concepts and ideas, throwing in unnecessary dream sequences and one too many establishing shots of the surrounding countryside.

I don’t know what happened to Syllas Tzoumerkas in Messolonghi, but Sargasso Sea is up there with In Bruges in terms of its utter contempt for a city. During a concert, Rita’s brother lays his hatred bare, telling everyone, including the sizeable Albanian population, to “go fuck yourself.” Expect Tzoumerkas to become persona non grata in the city for the foreseeable future.

The 69th Berlin Film Festival runs February 7, 2019 – February 17, 2019. Visit the festival’s official website for more info.

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As far back as he can remember, Redmond Bacon always wanted to be a film critic. To him, being a film critic was better than being President of the United States

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