Marshes, decay, closely held secrets, a rural town and a mysterious murder that needs solving: No, this is not a new season of “True Detective” – it’s “The Miracle of the Sargasso Sea,” the latest movie by Syllas Tzoumerkas. Its title is as enigmatic as the elements that make up the plot; Tzoumerkas says that it was inspired by the lifecycle of eels, which travel thousands of miles every year to reach their breeding grounds in the Pacific Ocean, transforming in the process. His protagonists embark on a similar journey, although not in some faraway location but at the Mesolongi lagoon in western Greece.
Elisabeth, portrayed by Angeliki Papoulia, is a former officer of the Athens anti-terrorist unit who has been transferred, much to her despair, to serve as the local police chief of Mesolongi. A mysterious death will bring this dynamic but troubled woman into contact with Rita, who works at an eel farm. The insular local community exercises its own form of pressure on both women, until it all comes to a head.
“The notion of paradise is at the heart of this film. Each character strives, battles to reach their paradise, each in their own way. As for Mesolongi, it has many functions: At first, we do not show the town as much as the surrounding area. Obviously, nature is key, and this is why we shot scenes at the deltas of the Acheloos and Arachthos rivers. Beautiful and sparkling from above, it is actually nothing more than mud and dirt,” Tzoumerkas explains.
Indeed, the parallel with nature is one of the most impressive aspects of the film. Unlike the director’s two previous, intensely political efforts, “Hora Proelefsis” (Homeland) and “I Ekrixi” (A Blast), “The Miracle of the Sargasso Sea” is a pure thriller.
“In my previous political films, I still took an interest in the dynamics of human relationships. I generally hate political movies that look for answers or, even worse, that seek the audience’s approval. I love raising questions, I love gray areas, I love the gaps that sometimes exist between different convictions. In this particular movie, the politics are dormant, they emerge through the aggravation of the crisis in a very poor part of the country where the characters are trapped, unable to fulfill their potential or their dreams.”
As is evident from the film, the emphasis is on human nature, with the small community acting as a trigger in the tension between the characters. But the “miracle” in the title also refers to a series of religious visions shared by the protagonists Elisabeth and Rita, which transcend the otherwise realistic scenario.
“Parallel to the thriller’s evolution, a dream world develops that is shared by the two women. Their visions are very important, especially for Rita, a woman of few words and strong religious faith. For me as well, these are my favorite parts and I tried not to make them look self-important, but lighthearted and with nature as a dominant element,” says Tzoumerkas.
Aside from any weaknesses his movie may present, Tzoumerkas has done an outstanding job on the characters. Passionately portrayed by Papoulia, Elisabeth is a “tough cop” with a bad attitude and a big mouth. She nonetheless carries her own baggage of nightmares and failures. Rita’s story moves her and spurs her to escape, literally and metaphorically, from the swamp she and her teenage son have been living in for the past 10 years.
She crosses paths with local star Manolis Dinias – portrayed by Christos Passalis – who is also Rita’s brother. He seems to be at the heart of a web of mystery in which the community has become entangled.
“The character of Manolis is probably the most typical of the sociopolitical genre of cinema. Here is a man who had gone off to follow his dream of riches only to end up living with his mother and singing at the local bouzouki joint.”