MELBOURNE, Australia -- Australian director Tony Krawitz’s debut feature, adapted from compatriot Christos Tsiolkas’ ambitious and disturbing third novel, is a riddle wrapped in ugliness and shrouded in spite. A morose mood piece tracing a young Greek-Australian man’s ill-fated return to his ancestral homeland, Dead Europe’s impenetrable narrative and dogged bleakness make it a decidedly uncommercial prospect.
It is, however, proficiently made, and festival audiences will find plenty of big themes -- history, guilt, poverty, migration, entrenched bigotry -- to chew on. Following its screening at the Melbourne International Film Festival, the Australia-England production heads to Toronto next month to screen in the Contemporary World Cinema program, and further festival play is a given.
Isaac (Ewen Leslie, star of Krawitz’s 2005 short Jewboy) is a gay art photographer heading to Athens for a gallery exhibition of his work. His father, Vassili (William Zappa), a former Communist Party member, reacts violently to news of Isaac’s planned trip abroad, eating a fistful of dirt before driving off in his car at a suicidal speed. It is after Vassili dies in a subsequent car crash and Isaac voices his desire to take his ashes back to his Greek birthplace that he learns of a family curse.
“Hell is for Jews and Muslims,” his mother (Eugenia Fragos) announces at this point, flagging a deep anti-Semitic stain that seeps through the film, sporadically given voice by characters seemingly created for this sole purpose.
Dead Europe is the latest in a line of Tsiolkas novels adapted for the screen, the most successful being the popular and critically acclaimed 2011 television series The Slap. Scripter Louise Fox here wrestles the complexities of what arguably is his knottiest storyline, one that skips across time and embraces supernatural elements into a frustratingly obscure, trancelike narrative. It is difficult to follow.
Emotionally distant as he engages in random sex and drug-taking, Isaac drifts through an unsightly Europe, a cemetery of ghosts and dark secrets peopled by wary, hostile observers. In Athens, he unwittingly awakens a phantom in the form of a young Jewish boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee of The Road) who appears to him intermittently thereafter, a symbol of the dark secret from his father’s past.
A creeping horror pervades the film as the story moves -- artificially, it must be said -- from Athens and the mountains of Greece through Paris to Budapest, where Isaac tracks down his estranged older brother, Nico (a typically excellent Marton Csokas), now a junkie working in the porn industry.
Tsiolkas’ view of Europe, embraced here by Krawitz, is of an irredeemably bleak continent full of racism, criminal activity and political apathy. Drug addicts and pimps, people smugglers and prostitutes merge into one incoherent blast of nihilism.
Wan, sickly lighting, Jed Kurzel’s troubling, bass-heavy score and restless camerawork by cinematographer Germain McMicking set the tone, but in the end mood is all, and it’s a bummer.
Venue: Melbourne International Film Festival
Production companies: See-Saw Films, Porchlight Films
Cast: Ewen Leslie, Marton Csokas, Kodi Smit-McPhee, William Zappa, Eugenia Fragos
Director: Tony Krawitz
Screenwriter: Louise Fox; based on the novel by Christos Tsiolkas
Producers: Emile Sherman, Iain Canning, Liz Watts
Director of photography: Germain McMicking
Production designer: Fiona Crombie
Costume designer: Emily Seresin
Music: Jed Kurzel
Editors: Alexandre De Franceschi, Scott Gray
Sales: Wild Bunch
No rating, 84 minutes