52nd TIFF Review: “Man at Sea” by Constantine Giannaris

It took the “Director’s Cut” seal of approval for Constantine Giannaris’ “Man at Sea” to premiere on its home turf. Whether a different, or possibly even a better film, it’s still the work of a filmmaker who’s very well aware that hell is on the inside.

The Thessaloniki International Film Festival audience was divided in two categories: those who had bought a ticket to watch Giannaris’ latest film and those who had bought a ticket to watch the latest version of Giannaris’ latest film! Unfortunately, none of the two could possibly have an objective opinion, as Giannaris decided to edit the film from scratch, adding and cutting material for the ultimate “Director’s Cut”, the minute he got back from Berlin.

The first category will only be able to judge the film based on its new version, while the second category will find themselves in the uncomfortable position of having to decide whether Giannaris’ decision to restructure the footage and tweak the narration was what the film was missing all along.

It’s a tough call, but there’s an easy way out: no matter which version you like best, it’s still the same film! Claustrophobic, pessimistic, deeply human and sometimes even grandiose, it’s a film about loss, the need for companionship, the fear of coexistence and the open wounds of a life that keeps hitting rock bottom, weighed down by guilt and insurmountable fate.

Although on the same wavelength with his previous oeuvre, “Man at Sea” is definitely a step forward. Just like “One Day in August”, a “barbarian invasion” serves as the necessary excuse to kick-start the action, digging up the past and redefining the meaning of compassion, absolution and forgiveness. The ship is just a miniature version of society, ripping its own heart out in a tortuous cycle, unable to escape its own limitations.

Every time the captain changes his mind about evacuating his illegal “load”, he’s greeted with rage, closing in on him as he slowly goes from landlord to trespasser. His descent into hell (beautifully rendered in the ship’s hold, right before the end) is nothing but the cathartic journey of a man who needs to cut himself off from reality in order to survive. Trespassing on his own life – which for all intents and purposes was over the minute his son drowned – he’s incapable of dealing with the guilt. His only hope is to embrace his own shipwreck, hoping that someday someone will throw him a lifeline when the time is ripe.

Giannaris does everything right: he takes advantage of the imposing geography of the tanker, the labyrinthine corridors, the spatial hierarchy and its otherworldly melancholy. The underbelly serves as a war zone between two enemy camps that refuse to give up, although exhausted by their own private battles. A commanding Antonis Karistinos coupled with a fragile Theodora Tzimou are in the center of it all, surrounded by a nightmarish band of outsiders whose numerous encounters are choreographed down to their final face-off.

If “Man at Sea” isn’t the director’s best work – although it certainly is his most ambitious – it’s because of his inability to orchestrate the internal rhythms of the conflict. Uneasy in the face of two narratives developing at the same time, he chooses to break down the mounting tension into bite-sized chunks, hinting at an imposing drama that could have turned into a regular roller coaster, if only he’d let it.

The characters’ motives remain obscure, while the amateur cast isn’t always attuned to the narrative’s particular sensibilities, adding to the nagging sensation that something’s always missing.

In this new cut, Giannaris showcases the mournful relationship between the leading couple – a little too elliptical for its own good the first time around – and eliminates the voiceover that weakened the sense of social isolation. Thanks to a new and improved narrative structure, “Man at Sea” is more functional, easier to process and slightly more dramatic.

The first version however (which might one day become a collector’s item) remains more grandiose and therefore more vulnerable to its own weaknesses.

Either way, “Man at Sea” undoubtedly belongs to a filmmaker who, even at his weakest hour, has an eye for greatness and is perfectly capable of building an accurate reflection of a world lost at sea, refusing to acknowledge that salvation can only come from within.