EUFF 2013: God Loves Caviar gets everything wrong
In English, Russian, and Greek with English subtitles
Unlike programmers or directors for most film festivals, those who perform that function for the European Union Film Festival are severely constrained in their choice of movies to exhibit.
Meaning they have no choice. The films are selected by the member states of the EU (27 this year, with Malta abstaining) and organized by Ottawa’s Canadian Film Institute along with the various consulates and embassies involved in pulling together this movable feast, now in its 16th year.
So spare a thought for those individuals who every year would probably love to think of themselves as working in a museum showcasing sparkling cultural artifacts but who, in reality, are more caretakers than curators, with no control over the annual change in travelling exhibits that they dutifully polish and promote.
Some of the films are wonderful, some are so-so, and some, unfortunately, are dogs. Which brings us to Greece’s entry in this year’s version of the EUFF.
Who knows what motivated the Greek officials who pulled the trigger on approving God Loves Caviar? Maybe it was prompted by trying to get some exposure and return on any government funds that might have been expended as part of the eight-million-euro cost of this barking turkey.
Director Yannis Smaragdis said before shooting for the 2012 film got underway that he hoped the historical adventure—based on the life of Greek hero Ioannis Varvakis, a pirate who ingratiated himself to Russia’s Catherine the Great, became a wealthy caviar trader, then returned to his homeland to help boot out the Turkish invaders in 1821—would ease the minds of and give hope to Greek citizens affected by the economic crisis gripping their country.
The fact that God Loves Caviar was that nation’s top-grossing domestic release last year might mean something. Then again, it might not. There hasn't been a lot of disposable income floating around that country recently.
One thing is for sure: this turgid costume melodrama is not going to be earning buckets of international cash.
It’s hard to know where to start criticizing this abysmal Greece-Russia coproduction. For starters, top billing went to three foreign actors in a vain attempt to purchase credibility through casting. Sebastian Koch (Varvakis), Catherine Deneuve (the empress), and John Cleese (a British official) mostly, and thankfully, eschewed chewing the scenery in favour of eating up the budget.
The rest of the money appears to have gone to costumes and antique rentals, all of which, it must be said, look splendid.
Special effects for “war” scenes (really only two of them) are so amateurishly risible that one almost hopes they won’t end, just for entertainment’s sake. (The first, the destruction of the Turkish “fleet”, looks like a puppet-show backdrop; the second, a “battle” during the Greek uprising, consists of about a dozen costumed extras holding antique muskets, never fired, who mill about in some park’s classic ancient ruins while a single puff of smoke is set off to signify a cannon shot or something. No Turks are ever seen.)
Cleese and Deneuve, mostly bored, probably see less than 10 minutes of screen time each, and Koch’s overacting would put young Disney XD stalwarts to shame.
The ham-fisted expository dialogue actually makes one cringe, and the ceaselessly swelling soundtrack is little more than an unwelcome intruder.
The rest of the cast appear to have learned their lines the night before shooting. As the young man who plays Varvakis’s son says at some forgettable point in the proceedings, “Listen to yourself: do you know how pathetic you sound?”
Smaragdis demonstrates no ability to develop character through the script he cowrote or to engage viewers through empathy, intellect, or even base emotion. And although he tries mightily on one or two occasions, he couldn’t tug at your heartstrings if he employed a 10,000-horsepower, twin-screw RivTow monster at full throttle.
Hungary demonstrated this year with The Exam that it is possible to fashion a fine, intelligent period drama-thriller with one-twentieth the budget of God Loves Caviar.
Maybe a little external curatorial input would be a good thing for some of the EU members. Until then, don’t be too hard on the festival “programmers”.