Somewhere up in the mountains in the Greek region of Thessalía there is a group of ancient monasteries built on sandstone formations, which appear to be the remains of a massive continental drift. These settlements are called metéora, which means “hanging in the air” or “floating” to emphasize their closeness to God and their general otherworldliness. A new film by director Spiros Stathoulopoulos is set in two of these monasteries and tells the simple story of two people falling in love, using images of breath-taking beauty and beautiful unreality.
If I had to sum up the story of Meteora, it would sound pretty banal and would likely not even compel me to see the film: A monk and a nun live in opposite monasteries of Metéora and develop a forbidden attraction towards each other. They communicate via mirror reflections and meet for a picnic in the valley until one day their bond leads to the inevitable sin. I personally hate synopses like these. I hate writing them as much as I hate watching films that rely on a story that can be summed up that easily. A film is not a book. Film doesn’t need to rely on words and, consequently, there is very little dialogue in Meteora and very little narrative-driven storytelling.
Instead, Meteora is everything that film can be: a visual playground, a formal experiment, a feast for the eyes and a little journey into an unknown world. The form and the style of the film change back and forth from majestic sequence shots of the scenery, to documentary footage of life down at the foot of the mountains to playful animations in the style of icon paintings. The more the film progresses, the more surreal these animations become. Their icons, two of them being the monk Theodoros and the nun Urania, develop a fantasy life of their own in which their paper cuts replace the real images and Urania grows Rapunzel-like hair that forms a bridge to Theodoros’ monastery.
In one of the most fascinating animation sequences, Theodoros embodies the Greek mythological figure Theseus and enters a contorted labyrinth into which he brings a ball of wool to find his way out. But instead of meeting the terrible Minotaur, he finds Jesus Christ tied to the cross. Theodoros/Theseus takes two stakes and nails the Holy Son to the cross, which leads to rivers of blood pouring from Jesus’ hands. Carried by the waves of blood, Theodoros gets washed out of the labyrinth and finds himself in safety again.
In a real-life sequence that features a local farmer, we witness the slaughter of a goat and the skinning of the animal that is tied to the tree and filled with air like a balloon. Both sequences circle around the ideas of sacrifice and death. They couldn’t be more different in their scenic approaches, though they are equally fascinating to watch and equally hard to explain.
What these images lead up to is a wonderful field of associations that circle around religion and timelessness, carnal desire and abstinence, survival and life. When at one point towards the end, our two lovers unite in a sexual fantasy in a secluded cave, we feel like we were carried along a string of scenes that were, in fact, part of a storyline. And yet, the magic of Meteora unfolds best if you succumb to the visual seductions that the film presents to you, not unlike the snake in the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.
Spiros Stathoulopoulos is not in the least interested in telling us what’s right or wrong, but he’s still leading us into temptation – my advise is to follow him.
Metéora, Greece 2012, 82 min.
director, writer, cinematography, sound: Spiros Stathoulopoulos, actors: Theo Alexander, Tamila Koulieva, Dmitris Hristidis, languages: some Greek, distributor: Kairos Film