It starts off quietly: a middle-aged man (Stelios Mainas) with a jazz club, a wife in the suburbs (Maria Nafpliotou) and a bit on the side pondering his life.
So far, so standard euro-cinephile fare.
But his midlife navel-gazing is brought to an abrupt halt when he is given less than two days to pay back an interest-heavy loan to a Romanian gangster (Mimi Branescu) with designs on his club.
From then on, the story, written and directed by 38-year-old Alexis Alexiou, never stops moving as it accelerates to a frenetic pace until its final, operatic climax that owes as much to the black humor of Quentin Tarantino as it does to the stylized gore of Park Chan-wook.
“I find this genre fascinating,” Alexiou said. “From the archetypical noirs of Fritz Lang and Carol Reed… to the desperate anti-heroes of Sam Peckinpah and the modern samurai gangsters of Takeshi Kitano or Johnnie To, the movies and filmmakers [that have influenced me] are too numerous to name.”
The Athens that we see is wet, vivid and lit by neon signs. But second-time director Alexiou never lets the viewer forget that the story is unfolding in the dark days of December 2010. Within the precise framing and luxuriant cinematography (Christos Karamanis) there is often a small television off to one side turned to the news and the film’s crisp sound design (Avi Mizrahi) reminds us of the intensity and newness of that time, when the first austerity budget became law, when Athens’s Christmas tree was set on fire, the constant street riots and police violence: all true events, all depicting a country spiraling out of control in tandem with the protagonist’s life.
“I wanted to be faithful to the feelings of fear and panic that reigned during that time; that fear that our way of life as we knew it, and everything that we thought we had or we thought was important was being turned on its head,” said Alexiou.
In his first foray in a non-naturalistic film, Mainas, a veteran of mainstream sitcoms, movies and the stage, gives an inspired, multilayered performance as his stoic everyman keeps the viewer guessing at every twist, and only the (real? imagined?) blood dripping from his nose hints that his restraint may break at any moment.
The antithesis of Mainas’s quiet desperation is Omer (a ferocious Giorgos Symeonidis), an Albanian entrepreneur and single parent who seethes with uncontrollable rage that he is seen as a lowly immigrant by Greek banks and forced to seek a loan from the soft-spoken Romanian gangster.
The rest of the cast also give standout performances, especially Dimitris Tzoumakis as Mainas’s sleazy former business associate and Nafpliotou, whose saccharine-sweet tones cannot mask the disgust she feels for her husband.
Greece’s economic crisis slowed down the film’s production, and it took five long years for Alexiou to amass the funds necessary to finish his movie.
“What you need is patience for sure, persistence and optimism. And you also can’t take yourself too seriously. Making movies shouldn’t be torture, it needs to be a joy,” said Alexiou.
“Wednesday 04:45” is out in theaters on Thursday, March 12, and will also screen in competition for best world narrative at New York City’s prestigious Tribeca Film Festival in April.
* Phoebe Fronista is an Athens-based freelance journalist.