Berlinale Dispatch: Do Monks and Nuns Have More Fun? Metéora Ponders the Question
Nothing says “international film festival” like a 9 a.m. goat flaying, as I was reminded at Sunday morning’s screening of Spiros Stathoulopoulos’s Metéora, which is being shown here in competition. Though I wasn’t too happy about the onscreen animal suffering -- the actual slaughter of the poor beast may have been simulated, but I’m not sure -- I did find the picture bewitching in other ways.
I seem to be in the minority on that: Metéora has met with a lot of derisive snorting from many of my colleagues. But I think Stathoulopoulos -- a young Greek filmmaker who has made only one previous feature, a real-time picture called PVC-1 -- is on to something in this tale of a Russian Orthodox nun and a Greek monk who fall in love and endure the pangs of intertwined passion and guilt. If it’s true that human beings most want what they cannot have, a pretty good-looking nun and a not-so-shabby monk, housed in side-by-side towers of asceticism, have the cards stacked against them. What could be sexier, in a Brother Sun, Sister Moon kind of way?
The movie takes its title from the medieval monastery complex Metéora, in Thessaly, a series of structures built on natural sandstone pillars that stretch practically into the clouds. Stathoulopoulos takes some liberties with these structures as they exist in real life: In the movie’s opening moments, he shows them to us as part of a sepia-toned triptych – in his vision, they’re mile-high his-and-hers towers, with a much stubbier stone mountain, topped by a leafy tree, nestled between. The Monk (Theo Alexander), and the Nun (Tamila Koulieva-Karantinaki), have come down from their respective retreats for a meeting in the countryside below: We see them in wide shot -- they’re gifting each other with necklaces, or strings of flowers, or something -- and hear them exchange austere blessings amid the grass and wildflowers. Then they part: Monk begins climbing the 652 -- or something like that -- stone steps to the top of the monastery, while Nun must huddle into a little net, which is then raised via a pulley to the treehouse-style convent above. (Later, we see a few hardy sisters working the crank on the contraption -- nothing comes easy in the hardscrabble world of religious devotion.)
Nun and Monk alternately avoid each other and rush into each other’s company. Like resourceful teenagers, they send signals to each other from their respective cells by bouncing sunlight off the surface of framed devotional pictures. They take delight in a picnic of goat meat (at least we know that poor goat didn’t die in vain), which Monk has prepared with care for his inamorata. Unable to resist her during this lunchtime idyll, he makes his move: She struggles when he first kisses her and then nudges his hand between her thighs, but resistance, as you can imagine, is futile. Hot monk-on-nun action is inevitable, but Stathoulopoulos approaches it delicately, as if it were an ascent to grace instead of a fall from it.
Maybe Metéora is, all in all, a little too tasteful. The filmmaking is restrained and austere -- a colleague of mine called it “too artisanal,” and I know what he means. But the film doesn’t seem arid -- it’s as if Stathoulopoulos is trying to work a kind of divine sublimation, perhaps only semi-successfully, but at times his picture does achieve a kind of burnished gold glow, like the halo on one of the stiffly painted medieval saints. In fact, Stathoulopoulos shows a strong attraction to all that strange, flat religious art. Even though Metéora is set in the present day, we don’t know it until we see the nuns hauling their foodstuffs in plastic milk crates. Stathoulopoulos is going for the full-on medieval vibe here, but he modernizes it with a charming touch: Here and there he illustrates the story of our Nun and Monk with animated Byzantine icons -- they move stiffly, like paper cutouts, but the effect only underscores the characters’ all-too-human frailty and uncertainty. In one of these animated segments, Monk, with Nun’s assistance, approaches Christ on the crucifix and drives nails into his palms; the sea of blood that flows from the wounds spreads into a sea of stylized curlicues that overwhelms our two already overwhelmed protagonists.
The symbolism is obvious, but its over-the-top quality is what’s glorious about it. Stathoulopoulos doesn’t always go for broke in Metéora: He’s feeling his way toward the sweet spot between secular and sacred passion, and maybe, in the end, he doesn’t quite find it. But if you’ve ever felt a vaguely naughty thrill while looking at religious art – if, say, you’ve ever had an “I’ll have what she’s having” moment while looking at Bernini’s Ecstasy of St. Teresa -- you don’t have a dirty mind. You’re simply seeing what’s clearly there. Religious fervor plus guilt can be a pretty hot equation. And if your Monk can cook, you’re golden.
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