Berlinale 2024 review: Arcadia (Yorgos Zois)

Arcadia is a film sometimes overwhelmed by its own ideas, but an intriguing effort that easily slips into the canon of the Greek Weird Wave.”

A desolate landscape, a car filled with silence. Understandable, as disgraced doctor Yannis (exactly why he is disgraced will be revealed at some point) and his wife Katerina have a dreadful task ahead of them: Yannis is to identify the remains of a woman who drove her car off a bridge near a seaside resort. Upon arrival they learn that the woman wasn’t alone in the car, but was accompanied by what seems to have been her lover. Yannis decides to stay in the house that the woman had rented, to spend a few days trying to let everything sink in. While he is consumed by his sorrow, Katerina meets Petros, a teenage boy who hangs around the house. Petros takes Katerina to a nearby tavern, which doubles as a spirit world where the deceased cling onto their loved ones and use sex as a vessel to conjure up memories. Slowly but surely Katerina starts to piece together her own history and the identity of the couple who met their fate at the bottom of a canyon.

Greek director Yorgos Zois’ sophomore feature Arcadia has flashes of other films in which the tangible world and some purgatory ‘otherworld’ are mixed; the film owes a lot to classics like The Sixth Sense, but whereas that film plays the whole ‘he was dead the whole time’ angle as a plot twist, Arcadia slowly reveals its intricacies to its audience. Zois tries to keep his cards close to the chest for the longest time, but sharp viewers will start to notice the oddities in the interactions between Yannis and Katerina, as well as those between the various supporting characters she meets in the tavern. Even the most observant audience will have trouble keeping track of who’s who in that establishment though, who is real and who is a ghost trying to hang on. This leads to the increasing frustration of getting lost trying to figure out plot strands that ultimately have very little payoff and whose only purpose is to make the viewer understand what is going on between the two leads. The importance of these side stories in guiding the viewer along in this strange tale of love and loss is muddled by unclear direction and the simple fact that there are too many of them; Zois seemingly plays this trick to not take away the veil and reveal the truth too soon, but since the unease about the central couple creeping in from very early on already signals something is off in this relationship, the scenes in the tavern could have used more clarity in their writing and sharper direction. In a way, Arcadia is a ‘puzzle film’, but too many similar pieces hinder the focus on the bigger picture here. Eventually all pieces will fall into place, but most people will have already had a glimpse of the box to know what the puzzle will look like when it is finished.

Despite that criticism Arcadia is a highly original film, and the concept of sex as a way to remember is an interesting angle; carnal ecstasy as a gateway to a transcendental plane is somewhat akin to deep meditation, albeit a more sweaty affair. Katerina’s first encounter with this concept is probably too gratuitous for its own good, adding a shock factor that wasn’t needed, but a later scene in which two dead lovers have intercourse to get their memories flowing while the partners they left behind reminisce about their own respective relationships to their deceased loved ones is poignant.

The film’s title refers to a place in Greek mythology, which was the abode of Pan and his array of nature spirits and muses, a veritable paradise of idyllic bliss. It is not entirely congruent with the purgatory that Zois creates, as the drab and deserted town can hardly be called an idyllic place, nor is the state of the souls wandering around one of bliss, but it is a good way to channel the idea of the afterlife being founded on the memories of those who survive us. Anchored by two strong internalized central performances by Vangelis Mourikis and Angeliki Papoulia, with especially the latter taking on a difficult role with brave abandon, Arcadia is a film sometimes overwhelmed by its own ideas, but an intriguing effort that easily slips into the canon of the Greek Weird Wave.

Image copyright: Foss Production, Homemade Films, Red Carpet