For Artemis (Sofia Kokkali), the 20-something protagonist of the Greek import Moon, 66 Questions ($24.99, DVD, from Film Movement), it’s often unclear if she’s enjoying her downtime or exorcising buried traumas. Perhaps her actions start as the former and end as the latter, or vice versa.
What to make of the scene, for instance, when she jerkily maneuvers a car back and forth in the tight space of an empty garage, hitting the accelerator and then the brakes with equal fierceness, just avoiding the walls as in a game of chicken, until she finally slams into one. We wonder if that wasn’t the endgame all along: the emotional release of the darkly satisfying crunch of metal on concrete. The Daniel Johnston classic “True Love Will Find You In the End” plays on the soundtrack, an assurance that is either bitterly ironic or ironically optimistic. For a film that thrives on ambiguity, we can only theorize.
For this complicated character — vividly realized in Kokkali’s fiercely intelligent performance — recreation and pain, whether the emotional, mental or physical kind, seem as intertwined as DNA strands. She’s often shown with scrapes or bruises on her hands and face, tussles with life that, in the thick of it, can seem unwinnable.
Artemis’s day job, as it were, is a largely unpleasant and thankless one. She has returned to Athens to tend to her estranged 54-year-old father, Paris (Lazaros Georgakopoulos), who suffered a seemingly inexplicable stroke. He can barely communicate, or stand on two feet. “He’s like a child now,” a doctor tells her when she retrieves him from the hospital.
As Paris’s caregiver, Artemis provides for his food and hygiene, injects him with medicine, and administers for his physical therapy, with its Sisyphean slowness. Artemis’s mom is not in the picture, literally: In one tense exchange between mother and daughter, writer-director Jacqueline Lentzou doesn’t give Paris’s spouse the dignity of being shown in the frame.
Moon, 66 Questions is Lentzou’s first feature, and it’s a remarkably confident debut, down to its personal style and visual motifs, and a screenplay that never hits a false note. Humorous scenes in which Paris’s extended family interviews potential home health aides, all of them invariably from far-flung European countries and without a grasp of the Greek tongue, have the wincing ring of truth; my own Israeli father-in-law, suffering from Parkinson’s, went through the same process with a Ukrainian caregiver.
Moments of this documentary-like verisimilitude are balanced with a precise, carefully storyboarded directorial vision — you won’t find shaky-cam affectations here. Favoring long and static takes, Lentzou’s camera is often tight and unrelenting on Kokkali, enforcing Artemis’s lack of escape from the life she has, for the time being, accepted. As if yearning for that escape nonetheless, she views her environment from whatever removes she can find: from a Carnival-type mask she discovers in the house, and through a magnifying glass she carries around. There’s play-acting too, as in the moment she pretends to order a drink at her father’s home bar, and proceeds to a light a cigarette in front of the array of bottles, her fingers shaking in a pantomime of her father’s condition. Whether this action comes from a place of empathy or frustration is anyone’s guess.
Part of Artemis’s coming-of-age journey is mediated through an old box of VHS home movies she finds in the house. Lentzou shows us what’s on them, even though Artemis doesn’t have the technology to watch them, which she poetically likens to her father’s condition: “He’s right in front of me, but I can’t see him.” Other leitmotifs include Tarot cards, astrology and American pop culture; the more you know about these topics, the more layers the movie reveals.
Though not plot-driven, this lovely, meandering film does offer a revelation about Paris that sheds new light on his suffering, and speaks to the anger and alienation that he released on his family. It climaxes toward a wordless and beautiful emotional release, but I was just as taken with the scene of flitting filial connection a half-hour prior, when Artemis and her father share a spontaneous eruption of laughter — a liberating hiatus from their everyday stresses — while trying to eat ice cream.
With the dessert dribbling down their chins, the moment hardly feels scripted, another example of Lentzou allowing her characters to be messy, uncouth, raw. This is her magic touch, the kind that’s difficult to quantify. A patient and caring eavesdropper, she captures the moments when nobody’s watching.