(Greece 2022; Dir: Thanasis Neofotistos)


Mayday means mother

review by Līga Požarska


length: 16

year of production: 2022

country of production: Greece

director: Thanasis Neofotistos

production: Ioanna Bolomyti, Dimitris Tsakaleas

director of photography: Yannis Fotou

editing: Panos Angelopoulos

sound: Alexis Koukias, Stelios Koupetoris

music: Lefteris Samson

cast: Lena Papaligoura, Konstantina Koutsonasiou

festivals: Locarno Film Festival 2022, TIFF 2022, Dokufest 2022, Festival du nouveau cinéma (FNC) 2022, PÖFF Shorts 2022

© images: Airhostess-737 (Thanasis Neofotistos)

What should have been another routine flight evolves into a hell of a trip for flight attendant Vinana. Her new set of orthodontics makes her doubt her appearance, impairing her professional performance. Soon it becomes clear that Vanina’s anxiety has nothing to do with the braces complex as it turns out the cargo space contains the coffin of her estranged mother, and the aeroplane is expecting turbulence.

Greek filmmaker Thanasis Neofotistos’ new short ‘Airhostess-737’ is a perceptive depiction of an individual’s attempts to hide real suffering behind an optimistic mask. In conversations with her two colleagues, Vanina keeps blaming the braces: they are badly put, look ridiculous and there is always something stuck between them. For the sake of experiment, allow me to replace the word “braces” with the word “mother” in some parts of the dialogue, proving that the prior argument is in fact a cover-up to hide Vanina’s real torment.

“[Mother] at my age? Fuck this shit!”
Vanina’s mother got pregnant at the age of 21, following two to three other abortions she had prior. Unprepared for the challenges of motherhood, she gave the child away.

“You look distressed,” the pilot remarks. “Is my [mother] a problem?” Vanina asks. “You have a [mother]?” replies the pilot. Vanina doesn’t answer and changes the subject.
She grew up as a semi-orphan and now, on a commercial flight, she’s transporting her mother’s body to her hometown. Vanina will never have a chance to confront her absent parent.

“My grandmother had never heard of [the mother].”
Vanina’s sole guardian, her granny, never fixed her teeth at a young age. They might have had other generation gaps as well.

Another flight attendant points out that Vanina doesn’t seem well. “I’m fine darling. It’s the [mother]. Just drop it, ok?”
Her distress culminates. She explodes while telling her colleague how technically hard it was to plan this trip.

Hiding Vanina’s mental pain behind her physical discomfort is a classic storytelling trope. Yet, these conversations give away far too much, handling all the answers on a silver platter and robbing the viewer of the chance to fill in the gaps themselves. Paradoxically enough, this generosity works well for the film as it accurately simulates a real plane ride when the passenger’s only duty is a passive one: to sit back, relax and enjoy the flight. ‘Airhostess-737’ has drawn us, quite cunningly, into Vanina’s whirling subconscious.

Neofotistos plays with several psychological elements to make the film deliberately uncomfortable to watch. The confrontation with Vanina’s face is inescapable: Yannis Fotou’s camera, fixated solely on the protagonist’s facial mimics, closely documenting her bubbling anguish, doesn’t grant us many options to look away. Passengers are reduced to a blurry background, the voices of the visually unidentified colleagues merely serve as conversation catalysers. This ‘Clockwork Orange’ effect renders the film wilfully uncosy. Just like Alex in Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 classic, with his eyes opened forcefully, we are invited to watch something unpleasant unfold before our own eyes — a mental breakdown. Surely, it’s a tender, less violent invitation not to look away. ‘Airhostess-737’ obliges you to sit through and challenge your empathy.

No distance is granted and the claustrophobic salon of the aeroplane is therefore a cleverly chosen topos for such an ever-escalating frustration. Nothing is cosy here, the cramped space is restrictive, the white walls electrifying, the harsh lights unflattering. Visually contrasting elements simultaneously capture and estrange us. Did Neofotistos subconsciously reference a personal experience with Ryanair, given the cabin’s yellow and blue design and the flight attendant’s bright crimson red lipstick? After all, the aeroplane set was built specifically for the filming of ‘Airhostess-737’.

Contributing to the tragicomic atmosphere is cheerful non-diegetic music in the beginning, playing as an ironic note during its reprise by the end. Meanwhile, the intercom announcements and the sound of the food trolley vibrate like a comforting lullaby that tucks one in a paper-thin public transportation catnap. Finally, Vanina’s humming arises from nowhere when everything else falls silent. Perhaps she’s desperately trying to find comfort in a familiar melody?

Instead of a flight attendant or a stewardess, the film’s title references “an airhostess”. Rightfully so, as Vanina takes excellent care of her guests on board. Her hospitality (maniacally offering snacks) flourishes progressively in relation to her rising anxiety (the mother becoming the main topic of conversation). There are similarities to be drawn with John Cassavetes’ protagonist in ‘A Woman Under the Influence’ (1974), another woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Neofotistos’ Vanina and Cassavetes’ Mabel spare no effort to gracefully perform their hostess duties despite their troubled minds.

Lena Papaligoura, portraying Vanina, took home the Best Actress award at the 28th Athens International Film Festival. Papaligoura’s corporeal mannerisms and trembling voice intonation reveal her character's vulnerability and downtrodden pain. The emergency scene is the crucial moment that reveals Papaligoura’s acting amplitude and the protagonist’s fragility as the suppressed affliction of a bitter woman instantly transforms into a frightened child’s desperate cry for a missing mother.

The escalation provides closure for both Vanina and the audience. Suddenly, the film turns into a surrealistic time capsule, illustrating Vanina’s wish to climb back into the womb of the mother that rejected her and to start their relationship anew — a reference to Pedro Almodóvar's ‘Habel con ella’ maybe? Her reconciliation journey has come full circle. Upon landing, we see another Vanina. Her smeared lipstick highlights a smile, relieved, in stark contrast to the staged grin upon boarding. Once reaching the destination, literally, she’s come one step closer towards letting go, figuratively.

The cathartic ending justifies the film’s unapologetic manipulation of its viewer. We needed to be trapped with Vanina in order to comprehend the urgency of her mental being. Though ultimately demanding a lot from its audience through its expressionistic and metaphorical storytelling, ‘Airhostess-737’ is also a delicate inspection of trauma and and grief, unveiled in force majeure conditions.

After its world premiere at Locarno Film Festival, the film received an honourable mention by the jury at Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) and European Film Awards Candidacy at the International Short Film Festival of Cyprus. With ‘Airhostess-737’, Neofotistos completes his “on route” trilogy, following up the EFA nominated ‘Patision Avenue’ (2018) & ‘Route-3’ (2019). Neofotistos has told that he’s also a child of an unprepared mother; Vanina’s closure is partly his.