The view from Thessaloniki 2023

Amid highlights from other international festivals, it was the strong regional programme from Greece and its neighbours that stood out at this year’s Thessaloniki.

27 November 2023

By Georgia Korossi

Woman of... (2023)

After a first half weighted towards the industry and networking opportunities around the film market hub Agora, the appearance of glittering Italian star Monica Bellucci at this year’s Thessaloniki rewarded the patience of festival crowds eager for some glamour. On receiving the Golden Alexander Award for her contribution to the art of cinema, Bellucci – who brought her latest film, Maria Callas: Letters and Memoirs – expressed her deep gratitude to Callas and the soprano’s “beautiful homeland, which I hold deep in my heart”. The film was screening to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the celebrated American-Greek singer’s birth.

Animal (2023)

Every year, Thessaloniki brings highlights of the major European festivals alongside surveys of the latest films from Greece’s neighbouring countries. The festival opened its 64th edition with Tran Anh Hung’s Cannes prize-winning gastronomic drama The Taste of Things, a sensual period love story starring Juliette Binoche and Benoît Magimel. It closed with Aki Kaurismäki’s much-loved comedy Fallen Leaves, about two strangers finding their way to happiness.

The juries praised Sofia Exarchou’s Animal, a sad picture of the labour that goes into the glitzy entertainment in all-inclusive Greek island resorts. In winning the Golden Alexander for best film, this second feature from the director of the 2016 drama Park became the first Greek film to win in the international competition for 30 years. Dimitra Vlagopoulou also took the best actress award for her impassioned performance as Katia, the lead dancer and entertainer who, after 10 years in the business, is feeling the impact of a damaging lack of dreaming.

Murderess (2023)

Word of mouth made Murderess, the debut feature of costume designer Eva Nathena, one of the festival’s hottest tickets. A world premiere here, it’s based on Alexandros Papadiamantis’s 1903 novel of the same name, which questions humanity in 19th-century rural Greece where new-born girls were considered a burden to their impoverished families. Revolving around a visceral performance by Karyofyllia Karabeti (Man of God), this powerful reflection of women’s rights in our society today received the FIPRESCI award for best Greek feature. Meanwhile, FIPRESCI’s best international film prize went to British writer-director Naqqash Khalid’s In Camera, another debut feature, which follows the precarious path of a young actor (Nabhaan Rizwan) determined to succeed in the film world.

The screening of Michael Winterbottom’s engaging new film Shoshana was timely. Based on real events, it’s a political thriller set in Tel Aviv during Britain’s occupation of Palestine in the 1930s, when Assistant Superintendent Wilkin (Douglas Booth) is joined by new officer Geoffrey Morton (Harry Melling) and the two are assigned to contain militant Zionist groups and to capture freedom fighter Avraham Stern (Aury Alby). Meanwhile, a love story develops between Wilkin and the eponymous Shoshana (Irina Starshenbaum), the daughter of real-life Marxist Zionist Ber Borochov. It took Winterbottom and his co-writers, Laurence Coriat and Paul Viragh, 15 years to bring their film to the big screen, which via newsreels from the time brilliantly sheds light on the roots of the current brutal war between Israel and Gaza. 

From the 194 features screening, I also enjoyed Italian director Giacomo Abbruzzese’s debut Disco Boy, centring on a dangerous French Foreign Legion operation to save French hostages held by a paramilitary group in the Niger Delta. An expressive take on Nigeria’s imperial exploitation, with echoes of Claire Denis’ Beau travail (1999), it boasts ferocious performances from Franz Rogowski, Morr Ndiaye and Laetitia Ky, and electric images courtesy of celebrated cinematographer Hélène Louvart.

Disco Boy (2023)
Films Grand Huit

Louvart also shot Alice Rohrwacher’s whimsical La chimera, a pleasingly textured picture combining various film stocks (16mm, Super 16 mm and 35 mm). Josh O’Connor plays Arthur, a melancholic English tomb raider in 1980s Tuscany who slowly develops an emotional attachment with Carol Duarte’s mesmerising Italia, carer for ageing peeress Flora (a delightful Isabella Rossellini). Arthur possesses some strange superpowers, which help his gang of looters find buried Etruscan treasures for selling to the black market. Playing with the ghosts of antiquity in a new, desperate 20th-century world, Rohrwacher’s film is a gratifying and magical experience.

Meanwhile, Romanian auteur Cristi Puiu was back with a new political film, MMXX. Comprising four fragments, set at a private therapy session, a young couple’s apartment, a hospital and a crime investigation scene, the film contemplates a cross-section of modern society as it emerges from the pandemic, but remains frustratingly unfocused. Kleber Mendonca Filho’s documentary Pictures of Ghosts, on the other hand, is a wonderfully nostalgic semi-personal account of geopolitical change. In telling the story of Brazil’s disappearing movie marquees, it touches on many of the Bacurau director’s cinephile reference points as a student at the start of his career.

Neandria (2023)

But the hidden treasure, although a screening of sparse attendance, was Polish director-cinematographer duo Małgorzata Szumowska and Michał Englert’s Woman of…, an epic tale of gender transition set against the backdrop of Poland’s shift from communism to capitalism. In ballad-like style, it follows male-born Aniela (Malgorzata Hajewska) on a courageous journey to self-discovery despite circumstances that emerge at home with his wife and kids.

In general, though, the programme this year was defined by its less than usual focus on Greece’s next-door neighbours. Neandria, by Turkish director Reha Erdem, is proof that the festival can provide the perfect platform for more regional stories like the one of teenage athlete Suna (Deniz Ilhan). Suna is trapped in a world run by the wrong decisions of older men at her mountainous village. She only has a few resources to find her true self – her raging adolescence and a few young friends, the only ones who are able to dream of a better world.

BFI Player logo

Stream hand-picked cinema

A free trial, then £4.99/month or £49/year.

Get 14 days free