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“It’s a folly, it’s slapstick in all its glory”

Syllas Tzoumerkas talks about his short film ‘My Mother Is a Saint’

interview by Savina Petkova

“It's very important for cinema to have this interaction with reality. I'm not talking about reality from a political angle, but real reality.” Greek writer-director Syllas Tzoumerkas has been working across film, theatre, and curation for over two decades. Still, his notion of realism stems from both an ethical and imaginative engagement with the world as primary material. He’s come to Sarajevo to premiere his latest short film regionally, ‘My Mother Is a Saint’, an eight-minute “religious slapstick”, as he likes to call it, starring the Greek-turned-international arthouse star Angeliki Papoulia as the eponymous mother-saint. The finished film was shown to a wider audience for the first time only a week ago, at the Locarno Film Festival, and it was conceived, shot, and edited within a day and a half (!) in April this year under the aegis of the so-called “action”, Mystery 84 FESTIVAL – Live Cinema, Working Class, Sirens. This idiosyncratic film event was co-curated by Tzoumerkas and took place in the historic town of Elefsina, Greece.

Apart from a screening marathon, the idea was to shoot a film live, in the midst of a real situation, Tzoumerkas adds, “like a live cinema thing where actors interact with real conditions in a way, which is something that I adore. I adore watching it in cinemas, and I adore doing it myself.” Naturally, the short is shaped by the peculiarity of its making, and it’s encouraging to hear a filmmaker so excited about an impromptu project, even if it falls between work on features. “It was like a return to the roots for me because I started out very punk as a filmmaker, using DVs. This interaction with reality was always important. We had a small crew, one camera, two actors I love, and we improvised the second part of the film entirely in real situations.” The film is, indeed, split into two parts. In the first, Jacopo Olmo Antinori plays a young man who, behind closed doors, recounts memories of his now-deceased mother. He speaks slowly, in an ornate Italian, bookish and poetic, painting a portrait of an extraordinary woman, his parent. Avoiding the obvious Oedipal traps, the mother (played by Papoulia), comes alive—metaphorically and in the film, literally—through his words in the film’s second half.

“I wrote the monologue for Jacopo and we shot it in one evening. The next day, we started filming at six o'clock in the morning until eleven at night, improvising things we relate to the life of Saint Simeon, the Madman [or Simeon the Holy Fool], who Angeliki sort of incarnates.” The appearance of a Byzantine saint and Eastern Orthodox symbolism holds no surprise for anyone familiar with Tzoumerkas’ work. Without directly engaging with religion, theological themes, and the Theodicy problem influence his work and thinking about humans in worldly situations: How can bad things happen to good people if God is omnipotent and good? In his features and shorts, questions of good and evil, prosperity, and love, are always tangled within the web of ethics and subversion. As an example of such subversion, the improvisational second part of ‘My Mother Is a Saint’ assumes its spontaneity for a reason: you are supposed to know which part is ‘real’. Papoulia’s character throws nuts at unsuspecting bystanders who stare at her, and she drags the carcass of a rabbit on the side of a road—all unexplained oddities that disrupt the social fabric on purpose. “These are moments that are meant to feel more erratic compared to the other bits of the film because the idea was to make into film the experiences of this very weird saint, Simeon. In fact, most of the things Angeliki does in the film are literally borrowed from the little church book of the saint I was myself fascinated by.”

— ‘My Mother Is a Saint’ (Syllas Tzoumerkas, 2023)

How does the life of a sixth-century monk relate to the study of cinema and our contemporary world? Tzoumerkas explains his draw to the source material: “To me, this element of mocking the world, modern seriousness of mocking religion itself, or pretty much everything that has to do with human existence, all of this has a demonic and divine element inside it that I find very contradictory, intriguing.” This is how he arrives at the particular term “religious slapstick” to describe the way Papoulia’s character smashes a cake in the face of an unsuspecting elderly woman, throws walnuts on the ground to disturb a walking crowd, and runs atop the railway tracks. “I am Simeon the Madman,” she allegedly said to her son, but her character is silent. Fascinated with the actress’ ability to channel multiple, often contradictory meanings without words in recent productions such as ‘Human Flowers of Flesh’ or ‘A Little Love Package’, I ask Tzoumerkas about this particular role, as he has worked with Papoulia before. “We actually discussed whether she would speak or not, even tried out a couple of lines. But then we realised that this character doesn't speak. She's a spirit. You know what I mean? She's transcendent. Angeliki achieves this transcendence in silence in a very, very specific way.”

As for the “religious slapstick”, he adds that this is not something you can script; you need an actor willing to “go there”. He and Papoulia met a couple of times on the ground to sketch out what to do, and then they went out with a camera and “literally did it”. Tzoumerkas relates the action-based approach to the life of saint Simeon himself, “who is a saint of actions, he’s not a preconceived character, he reacts to reality in extremely contradictory ways.” Channelling this rebellious nature through the figure of a mother and Papoulia’s star persona becomes a feminist gesture, a provocation to the political stakes of a world where sainthood and motherhood are associated by default. The gender swap here only highlights the absurdity of such connotations while capitalising on the uproar caused by the mother’s non-conforming behaviour to criticise societal expectations. And while the film is shot in Greece, it is in Italian on purpose to gain enough critical distance and “a safety net from sounding folkloric.”

Elefsina is at once one of the poorest places in Greece, an industrial centre, and the place where the most intriguing Ancient celebrations took place. We know nothing of the Eleusinian mysteries, but they were at the root of theatre as we know it. Such a confluence of past and present testifies to the disenchantment of modern life. “Elefina has an industrial and working-class life that has been there for decades, and these are people that have been mocked by the state again and again, tricked, humiliated. For me, when you come to this kind of political disillusionment, the only answer is this endless mockery, and, you know, middle finger, divine finger-raising.”

Another way the shooting location informs ‘My Mother Is a Saint’ is through the symbolism of death and rebirth. One of the celebrated cults in mythical times was that of Demeter and Persephone, which the director admits is still in “the film’s underbelly.” He adds: “You witness, for six minutes, the death of a woman through her son’s narration, and then you have this resurrection of mockery. When one would usually go from spring to death to spring, I opted for death and then immediately, spring.”

— ‘My Mother Is a Saint’ (Syllas Tzoumerkas, 2023)

Tzoumerkas also pays respect to the religious slapstick history of Italian cinema by working with a young actor he saw in Bernardo Bertolucci’s last feature film ‘Me and You’: Antinori. In the Italian monologues, he crafts a tactile world out of sentences without using corresponding images as illustrations. This separation between the narration and the image feeds into the short’s playfulness. “I have a love for this kind of direct monologue, something that I’ve admired in Italian and French cinema, especially Godard’s short and lesser-seen films. I cherish the fact that I don’t have to create a pretext in the scene. I prefer to let the person get directly to one meaning or the other, whatever that may be.” A mix of stylisation and improvisation, ‘My Mother Is a Saint’ is a fresh, exciting work of collaborative cinema.

The Greek director can be fearless in the way he challenges the ambivalences of our world. “It's a folly, it's not to be taken seriously in a way that the saint wouldn't allow to be taken seriously.” The role of life within his short films has always been big. In his first short, ‘The Devouring Eyes’, he placed actors in boats to evoke the unpredictable. In ‘My Mother Is a Saint’, he says, “there was the purest form” of such a meeting between cinema and the world. “We had an actor with people who don't know what's going on, a very small camera crew that is almost invisible, an actor interacting with real people.” The festival’s concept allowed it to happen without ethical qualms because the attendees were alerted to the notion that filming would take place.

With such an open cinematic device, reality springs into action. “I don't want to trap it in a single meaning because it can have different meanings and take various directions.” Offering space for emotional engagement, experimentation, and fun, seems to have been one of the goals of this film. Imbuing the seriousness with provocation makes one look at the world in a different way. With comical distance, the world looks like a slightly better place. “It's a punk, anarchic game that acquires meaning by itself,” says Tzoumerkas. And we know he’s not only talking about his film, but about life.