By James Karas
Amerika Square gives a glimpse of today’s Greece through the film noir lens of director Yannis Sakaridis. The film has all the hallmarks of the genre; dark, somber, gloomy, pessimistic, shot mostly in the dark and dealing with the underworld. Sakaridis in fact mentions Casablanca, one of the most notable films noir, in his movie. He also edited the film and is one of the producers and screenwriters. In other words, this is decidedly a Yannis Sakaridis film.
The title refers to a neighborhood in Athens which, according to a character in the movie, was the Via Veneto of the Greek capital. Now it is a seedy district “invaded” by immigrants from Syria, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The film has several plot strands all of which merge in the end. One plot involves Nakos (Makis Papadimitriou). He is 38 years old, unmarried, unemployed and living with his parents. His world is the Amerika Square area, the local fountain where he used to hang around are is all destroyed and he turns into a virulent racist and hater of the swarthy-coloured immigrants to the point of wanting to destroy them. He keeps a strict tally of the proportion of immigrants to Greeks in his apartment building and finds that the overwhelming majority of the residents are immigrants.
Tarek (Vassilis Kukalani) is a Syrian refugee who wants to go to Berlin with his daughter and pays €8000 for someone to arrange his flight. Tereza (Ksenia Dania) is a beautiful Kenyan singer who is basically enslaved by a couple of thugs.
The central character who is eventually involved in all the plot lines is Billy (Yannis Stankoglou), a tattoo artist who displays decency and strength as he tries to help the refugees and deal with his good friend Nakos. Sakaridis places considerable emphasis on tattoos. Unlike life in Amerika Square, they are almost permanent, they allow the wearer to express his credo or, as in the case of Tereza, to be branded like a piece of property belonging to her “owner.” We see close-ups of tattoos and tattooing as if these people are trying to keep something that has been lost forever like the local fountain and memories of good times. We are told that tattoos last for a year and a half after death.
Except for a few exterior scenes, the film is shot in interior darkness or somber, pessimistic, almost hopeless shots. Sakaridis zeroes in on the faces of the people, especially Nakos, as if he were trying to enter their soul.
Vassilis Kukulani as Tarek has despair, fear and terror etched on his face for himself and especially for his little girl. He is forced to give her to an unknown couple to accompany her out of Greece. He is stopped from boarding an airplane as he sees his daughter leave with the strangers. He is a hunted, desperate man at his breaking point. Tereza is at risk from her thugs and desperate to get out of the country.
Stankoglou as Billy tries to deal with all the horrors around him. Tarek and Tereza end up in his shop and the murderous Nakos is always there. Stankoglou maintains a steely expression on his face (Humphrey Bogart has nothing on him).
The plot has some creaky spots. The lecture on the environment is quite unnecessary and Nakos’s plot to exterminate the refugees stretches credulity. Sakaridis concentrates on the homicidal attempts of a racist creep while the thugs and the fate of the refugees are dealt with less emphasis than they deserve. But he deals with a subject that is in the news almost every day and despite its familiarity, the film makes its point.
Amerika Square is Greece’s submission for the 2018 Oscars in the Best Foreign Language Film category. It has received a number of awards already including recognition at the Los Angeles Greek Film Festival and the Thessaloniki Film Festival.
Amerika Square was shown on November 14, 2017 at The Royal Cinema, 608 College Street, Toronto as part of the European Union Film Festival.