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‘Pity’ Film Review: From Greece, a Mordant Comedy About Tragedy

Sundance 2018: Co-writer Efthimis Filippou (”Dogtooth,“ ”The Lobster“) continues his string of compelling, off-putting bleak farces

Pain is not only painful; it’s repetitious. At least that’s the case in director Babis Makridis’ “Pity,” a slow-burn drama about the relentless heartache loss tends to cause.

In the beginning, we find Giannis (Yannis Drakopoulos) standing inside his home, in front of the door. He’s in a white button-up shirt and horn-rimmed glasses. There’s a knock at the door. A woman enters. She has a homemade Bundt cake. In “Pity,” there is an endless supply of these luscious pastries. It’s one of the few bright spots in Giannis’ otherwise morbid existence.

The film trudges through the trenches of his wife’s coma. Her sickness has spawned a despondency in Giannis, who can’t seem to move forward. Without her, how could he?

There are myriad of ways to tell this story. Where most films would verge toward a hospital-heavy long haul, “Pity” goes a different route. Efthimis Filippou (who co-wrote the project alongside Makridis) focuses on Giannis’ interiors. Each day our protagonist awakes in panic. In his boxer briefs, he inches toward the edge of his bed, and begins to uncontrollably weep. Like clockwork, as the sun rises his tears fall. He can’t stop them. In fact, as the story proceeds, it feels as if Giannis is addicted to his own suffering.

All of this sounds more bleak than it is. Filippou comes from the Greek school of Yorgos Lanthimos, with whom he co-wrote “Dogtooth” and “The Lobster.” In these milieus, tragedy is unborn comedy, morbidity waiting to transmute into levity.

Miraculously, Makridis doesn’t undercut the seriousness of Giannis’ plight with humor. The laughs derive naturally from Drakopoulos’ pitch-black performance. Sardonic and epigrammatic, situations turn uproarious through uncomfortable gestures and body language. For example, there’s something silly about Giannis’ interactions with his dry cleaner, who routinely asks him about his wife. He’s very “sorry and sympathetic” in the way most strangers are in the wake of other people’s calamities. The dry cleaner doesn’t know what to say, so instead he says everything.

For some, the film’s “awful, relentless torment” may grow monotonous. After all, there’s only so much tearful howling an audience can stomach. Mileage will vary.

But it’s the details that make Makridis’ sophomore feature worth enduring. Giannis’ home is antiseptic and modern, equipped with enough furniture to function, but nothing more. Makridis’ minimal presentation appears to be intentional. Best not to distract from tribulations with accessories. The color palette is Easter Sunday, full of light blues and pink Ralph Lauren oxfords.

Outside of Giannis’ window is water and palm trees. The external serenity grows funnier with each passing minute. The outside world is peacefully abiding, while Giannis remains stagnant. His wife’s coma has engendered a kind of breakneck paralysis. “Pity” simply asks us to sit in the discomfort with Giannis. There’s a rhyme and reason to Makridis’ cinematic request. On the side of misery is often more misery — and then, maybe, if you’re lucky, some light.