Dead Europe – Tony Kravitz tells us we are what we believe. (Film Review)

I haven’t read the novel Dead Europe by Christos Tsiolkas, though I know at the time of its release there were quite a few people impressed with it. It has been a novel that can’t be adapted to the big screen, in the past, so now that I enjoyed the film, and would like to chase the book down, Ill probably be glad I saw the film first.

Australia’s immigration is legendary, from our first convicts through to locking folk up on local islands in the south pacific while we pretend they are hurting their own children in an attempt to paint them as monsters that deserve to be sent home. We are all very uneasy with our past down under and like to represent ourselves as sparkling clean beaches, tanned (clean) bodies,  mysterious deserts and filled with a “she’ll be right mate” form of larrikinism. We have an uneasy relationship with Europe and its scattered nations that all come together here. At times we have been sycophantic, famous for sending our young to the continent for their first 6 months to two years of living without their parents.  Other times we have been enduring, maintaining the culture and the spirit of the homeland and sending the kids back for educating and spouse choosing. We have a famous cultural cringe that we are only just starting to get over. We adore Europe, and we fear it also.

A Greek friend who was out here visiting family said to me once, coming to Australia is like travelling back through time. When the immigrants leave the homeland, they take what was important culturally to them at the time, with them, and they preserve it in the new land. Then Greece, Hungary, Italy, Spain, Portugal moves on and changes, and like a relic in a time capsule, the immigrant finds themselves defending a way of life that has long since been discarded.  As I said above, the relationship we have with Europe is complex.

Dead Europe is about one of these Greek families.  Isaac (Ewen Leslie) is going to Greece, where his parents came from, for the first time in his life for an art exhibition of his photographic work. Both his parents don’t want him to go claiming family curses will find him there. He has a brother in Budapest who appears to have been lost for years. However, Isaac is a very modern hero. He is emotionally independent, pragmatic and very detached from his ancestry. He enjoys the family story that his father was a communist, living through the very “rational” ideals espoused by that political ideology in countries where true communism is no threat. Isaac is an artist, a comfortably out gay and an atheist, and it seems there are no social taboos or shadows that can touch him. After not being able to talk Isaac out of going, his father drives drunk and dies in a car accident.

Isaac decides to take his father’s ashes back to Greece with him, despite the fact that his mother wants his father to be consecrated in a Greek Orthodox Church after the man was an atheist all his life. Isaac flatly refuse this request and with the support of the rest of the Australian born family, takes the ashes with him when he goes to Greece .

It is once he is in Europe that Isaac begins to confront what his father and mother had wanted to protect him from. It is not a curse or a vision that is the problem with Isaac, it is more that he is utterly defenceless when he arrives in Europe to the histories and depths that shape the continent into what it is. Australians are so culturally young. We are a nation that is a little over 200 years old. In the face of Europe’s decadent epochs, Australian culture seems so bereft, so naive, so incapable of any sort of defence against knowledge. Isaac is alone. Alone in his rationalism. Alone in his casual erotic sexual encounters.  Alone in his recreational substance use.  Alone in his intense smallness.

The Europe of this film wears none of the glittery sheen we have seen in the latest Woody Allen films, To Rome with Love and Midnight in Paris. You’ll not see an Eiffel Tower, or a Parthenon. Europe is a bag of ancient hatred and wandering immigrant souls each trying to avoid a present that is heavily weighted down with the guilt and atrocities of the past. It is in Budapest that Isaac will finally confront his true history and find himself completely unprepared. It is something he has always known, but it is also more than that. It is something he will never be able to escape.

Tony Kravitz with co-writer Louise Fox adapted the novel and the film retains a nightmarish swirling quality as it draws parallels between Isaac’s inability to escape his past and the weight of history crushing modern Europe itself. Immigration is a major theme, both the saving environs of the naive childish Australia and the desperation of European immigrants as they move between each border carrying their poverty and the history of what each nation has done to the other with them. Although this is an intense film depicting graphic gay sex scenes and clear images of child prostitution it is not those scenes that will remain the most disturbing. When Isaac gets angry with his mother for telling her grandchild hell is for Jews and Muslims and tells her the words are poison, he has no idea just how poisonous they are.

But he will find out.