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Miracle of the Sargasso Sea, The
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by Jay Seaver

"Grimy, but not down in the muck enough for its own good."
3 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2019 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Eels, apparently, can migrate surprisingly far distances, from the Mediterranean to the Sargasso Sea in the North Atlantic. I know this because filmmaker Syllas Tzoumerkas makes sure that the audience sees a clip from a documentary on the subject, so you'd better believe that there's a metaphor to be found here. That, after all, is what raises a film from being dark misanthropic genre material that goes nowhere to being a praiseworthy drama: Not just having the crime story stand for something else, but making sure that the audience knows it does.

The eels here are not caught so much as farmed, though, and like them, there are at least two women who would rather be migrating from small-town Meologi. Elisabeth (Angeliki Papoulia) is the oft-hungover chief of police who is only there because it was easier for the people in Athens who found her inconvenient to promote her to a backwater than fire her when they needed her out of the way, while Rita (Youla Boudali) works in the processing plant but has a ticket to Miami in her wallet, mostly staying behind for family reasons. She soon has a bit less family, with disreputable younger brother Manolis (Hristos Passalis) found dead of an apparent suicide. It's the sort of thing that might not be investigated much closer, except that some out-of-town students are also missing, nobody from Rita to the Albanian drug dealers seems to be reacting quite the way you'd expect, and Elisabeth is a good cop when given the chance to be.

It's never particularly hard to see why these women are looking to get away; there are towns like Meologi all over the world, and they all have the same sort of look to them, at least in the movies - houses that look like slightly-overgrown sheds with trash in the front yards, the one nightclub that just barely avoids looking depressing with the lights down low, beaches where the sand, sea, and sky all verge on being the same gray color. Of course it has a fish-processing plant, because what else can make a seaside, agrarian community feel quite so miserable? Tzoumerkas doesn't lean on these tropes quite to the point of parody, fortunately, but they are familiar in their deployment, mostly interesting in how he occasionally shakes them up: The ten-years-earlier opening in Athens, for instance, is staged like something from a much bigger action movie and gets across why Elisabeth might miss the excitement of the city even if it also shows the inherent dangers and hints that it's probably not good for police to enjoy their work too much. There's another jaw-dropping moment with Rita that briefly takes things into more surreal territory, even if the film doesn't stay there long.

There's a mystery to go along with this, of course, but it's not the sort of mystery that is particularly striking on its own. Nasty secrets will be uncovered, of course, whether it's local creeps indeed being that creepy or outsiders knowing someone who can suggest to Elisabeth that the path back to the city might be slightly easier if she arrived at the most useful solution. Sometimes the various pieces are only tangentially connected, red herrings to keep things going for a little while longer. Eventually, the characters plug through it and figure out what happened, but it's never the sort of puzzle whose construction is particularly fascinating or whose unraveling reveals surprises. It's a means to make the spot Rita's in a little tighter and excavate for what sort of professionalism remains under Elisabeth's shell.

Which is worth doing, thankfully, because both Angeliki Papoulia and Youla Boudali are well worth watching. Both spend much of the movie relatively resigned to the position they've wound up in, with Elisabeth's resignation an angry one, leading her to occasionally act out through sheer boredom. Papoulia does well to handle how Elisabeth doesn't physically shuffle through life but seems to have that attitude mentally, never seeming entirely disengaged but always kind of resentful and almost spiteful when her instincts lead her to the next clue. There's an almost forlorn hope to Rita, on the other hand, as she's still in the process of being ground down, so there's this often shocking determination for Boudali to play.

They deserve a more engrossing picture, truth be told, as this one is never quite interested enough in its investigation to convince the audience of its importance. The film may give us two fine performances by its stars, but is so careful to present itself as art that it never manages to have the same bite as good genre work.

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originally posted: 12/26/19 10:17:44
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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