Costas Ferris’ extraordinary, sinfully under-seen, Rembetiko from 1983, begins and ends with the music. Literally. Your ears are in for a real Greek treat – baglamas, violin, santouri, bouzouki – the music emerges from the opening frame. From behind the hanging bead pass of a Greek bar, a secluded venue, one of many, for the social outcasts that were borne from the Turks and Greeks co-existing in an underground music scene. This is rembetiko.
The lyrics of the opening number, and many to come, are aiding the storytelling from the outset. A jovial-sounding folk song. But they are singing about very important issues during a time of Greek refuge. Music rooted in suffering and alienation, but also salutes the hash pipes, and spread from the slums of Piraeus to the realm of Athenian songs. As controversy would follow, the Greeks sang the blues on the rocky journey to music liberation.
Ferris’ film is a tip-top tribute to that chunk of history in the first half of the twentieth century, but also a masterful example of how to tell a story for the screen. To the untrained eye, you might not pick up on the sartorial or era-specific elements of Rembetiko, but there’s a history lesson too here. The smoke-filled bars accommodate the youthful exuberance and mature wisdom in its clientele. These people have all seen and breathed such different lives in these changing times.
As Panagis plays on stage with his band, across the way his wife Andriana is giving birth. His face drops when he is told it is a girl. Rembetiko depicts near five decades of the turbulent life of singer Marika Ninou. Segments of brief, historical interludes, featuring actual footage, seamlessly sail us through the years.
At seven years old, Marika has little choice but to witness her oafish father and unfaithful mother partake in a destructive relationship. Like the opposing parallel of mood and words in the film’s songs, Ferris uses his camera to switch perspectives. There’s a great scene with camera slowly sliding down from the unfaithful mother and her lover, to little Marika as she interrupts their playtime.
Moments later, in the street, Marika beckons the violinist, Yorgos, to play so she can dance. It’s a beautiful scene in the bright outdoors, away from the gloomier shades of the indoor music scene. The crowd nearby begin to clap their hands in unison at the display. The lighting here is so often illuminating, somehow capturing the varying moods, as well as the heat of the location.
Later, Panagis takes his belt to the girl, for freedom of expression is simply not okay. The next set, Marika is sitting beside her father, with a tamberine. An instrument that will follow her to adulthood. The tension, the consequences, are so strongly dictated through the music, and the production design. Andriana experiences passion against the decaying brickwork of the walls outside – and still music hums from afar. Marika’s parents final squabble is a fatal one, to which the little girl witnesses. The mournful song playing somewhere fits perfectly, of course.
The plot jumps forward again. A fresh-faced 16 year old Marika. Played by Sotiria Leonardou, who co-wrote the screenplay with Ferris, the mesmerising actress is a marvel from here right through to the end. As the teenager, Leonardou carries the same posture as Marika did as a child. And gradually transitions over the decades through the troubles of adultain such times.
When Marika finds love in magician Yannis, it in some ways mirrors her mother’s change in fortunes when she herself has a child. The relationship crumbles to its knees. The magic gone you could say. With it comes a new generation of singers, embracing the instruments and the pain of their culture. Another terrific song, and more of the harmonious narration. Marika and Babis, a bouzouki player, are about to hook up when her daugher Andriana walks in – an almost replay of the earlier interruption when she was a kid.
When Babis flutters off to another club (and another woman, the swine), Marika is put in the spotlight to sing alone. Memories of her brutal upbringing kick her into gear. Its a moment that may inflict a shiver down your spine. Confronting Babis, life has chiseled Marika, she has far more fire in her belly, and is taking oxi skata. “That’s how I sing, whenever I feel ike it.” Meanwhile poor Yorgos, who loves Marika in many ways, they’ve grown up togther, fits the nice-guys-come-last mould.
With every music number, as the years roll by, Rembetiko grows in depth and stature. As the decades tumble by, Ferris has complete control of the film’s pacing and narrative flow. Relationships are turbulent, magnetic, unfinished, given the space on screen to flourish or disintegrate accordingly.
The cinematography is also something to Benin awe of. The camera glides though the scenes, when it needs to, methodically impressive, but never showy. That’s not all, the attention to detail with the costume and set design is a flourish of artistic excellence. The fez, the off the shoulder jacket, the ties, the color of Marika’s garments. I mean, I could go on. And so I will. Spectacularly lit throughout, be it the candle light, the dim underground feel of the bars, the panels of light onto the night streets. The era-specific technical prowess is an admirable achievement on all fronts.
And there’s even more to savor of Sotiria Leonardou on the extended version of the film. A performance so nuanced, rich in depth and strength. Leonardou gives extra gusto to the already fascinating character of Marika, from her timid young adult, to the no-nonsense woman in the later years. The harrowing meltdown in front of the mirror scene towards the end takes the acting stakes right to the end of the spectrum.
As well as its evocative, emotional impact, Rembetiko owes a lot of course to the music. As well as the relentlessly addictive cluster of songs, Stavros Xarchakos’ tantalizing score is an unforgettable composition. The perfect companion to honor Greek history. And the art of cinema.