Tuesday 16 February 2021

Lonely are the brave: "Digger"

One issue with the Greek Weird Wave is that it overshadowed and washed away almost any trace of Greek production that wasn't weird: those films that remained rooted in basic, recognisable human psychology, and weren't just acting funny-strange for the benefit of archly guffawing hipsters. (Argyris Papadimitripoulos's tough, terrific Suntan was one of those all but buried while Lanthimos and pals laughed all the way to the bank.) With this wave finally dissipating, we can see what's been left behind. First up: Georgis Grigorakis's finely balanced feature debut Digger, which owes less to its Grecian predecessors than it does the foursquare milieu of the American Western, and that recent run of landscape-centred, eco-tinged US indies (Winter's Bone, Leave No Trace, Captain Fantastic). Its centrepoint is a solitary figure, Nikitas (veteran Vangelis Mourikis, recognisable as among the ship of fools in the Weird Wave's best film, Athina Rachel Tsangari's Chevalier), who's cut most of his ties and retreated to a cabin in the woods to raise chickens and see out his remaining days. He's not an eccentric, but a gentle grouch, a bit of a loner, constantly scratching at an imagined tick bite on the upper reaches of his back. Upheaval is heading his way on two fronts, however. Firstly, the constant excavation of a mining company stripping the adjacent land prompts a mudslide that almost sweeps him and his possessions away; then, just when he's dealt with that mess, he's interrupted by the reemergence of Johnny (Argyris Pandazaras), his son by his late ex-wife, who needs the collateral tied up in this small acreage if he's going to reclaim his mother's house from the bank. Grigorakis evidently has more substantial matters on his mind than messing around with the finer points of the Greek language: inheritance, family ties, the corrupting influence of money on both people and the wider landscape. When you give yourself all that to dig into, you really don't need to set your characters to barking like dogs.

Weird, how? For much of its 100 minutes, you could fairly describe Digger as dark and brooding, seemingly bound for some final, desperate mise-en-abîme. In retrospect, I think it's also important to note there are flickers of warmth and optimism visible, too, chiefly in the sight of an estranged father and son repairing their bond as biker and mechanic Johnny mends dad's chainsaw. Still, those incursions from the mining company and their representatives get ever closer to home, such that you may begin to fear that chainsaw will become the sylvan equivalent of Chekhov's gun. This is an altogether terse, male world, certainly. Grigorakis introduces a sympathetic barmaid, Mary (Sofia Kokkali), who then sits on the sidelines hoping the closed-off Johnny will return her obvious affections; there's a brief glimpse of a female rent-a-cop, too, but she's greeted by jeers and accusations of traitorousness from Nikitas's fellow holdouts. With their mollifying influence limited, the threat of violence is never far away. Set aside the chainsaw, and there's still plenty of axes and shotguns on screen. It's to Grigorakis's credit that this threat is held in abeyance for the most part, and finally subverted via several of the most unexpectedly elevating images in recent memory. Digger is deliberately paced, if not quite the full slow cinema: it displays a fondness for extended taverna scenes, positing the pub as the new cradle of Greek civilisation, a forum for boozy democracy. Yet the pacing corresponds to the stubborn streak in its central characters, Grigorakis giving himself and us time to chew these themes over and stake out every inch of this disputed territory. That surprising finale is contingent on us knowing exactly how everything and everyone in five square miles relates. Mourikis, meanwhile, is busying himself crafting something quietly heartbreaking, almost a figure from 19th century fiction: a relic of a distant, less rapacious era, his Nikitas has grown increasingly tired of the modern world's brutalities and indignities, but can only sit or shake a fist as what's left of his dominion is bought off or chipped away. Cinematographer Giorgos Karvelas's wide shots of desolate, hollowed-out vistas speak eloquently and damningly to what's been allowed to go on in the real Greece while Lanthimos and his oddball coterie were giggling among themselves.

Digger is available to stream from today via MUBI UK.

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