Paradoxically there's both a familiarity about Spiros Stathoulopoulos' Metéora (2012) and a sense of novelty. It's reminiscent of a number of films which do hear some similarity thematically but are very different in terms of style. It concerns the ordinary lives of those living in remote mountainous monasteries and bears many similarities with Into Great Silence and Of Gods and Men and captures the slow, quiet passing of time in much the same way. But it also explores the issue of forbidden love for those who are meant to be living celibate lives for their God and that combined with the barren, rocky desert setting brings to mind The Last Temptation of Christ, even before the climatic scene featuring the crucifixion. But as with several other moments in the film, that scene is animated, using the style of Orthodox iconography. And it's about monks, which also brings to mind the way in which The Secret of Kells uses an animation style based on Celtic-style religious art to tell the story of an early Irish monastic community. In terms of whether or not this is a film for you, I suggest you think about how you feel about each of those films and go from there.
There's no plot to speak of, Theodoros is a Greek monk who is in love with Urania, a Russian nun. We're not told how they fell in love, or even how long things have been going on. Indeed it's not even clear if this is love or just a temporary fascination. Neither is fluent in other's language and we don't know how the became aware of the other and made their feelings known. Indeed Theodora's doesn't even know the colour of Urania's hair. Theodoros and Urania's respective communities live opposite one another atop rocky pillars so high and steep you wonder how they ever managed to build them. The film takes it's name from the ancient group of Greek monasteries which go back almost 1000 years. Seemingly not much has changed inside the monasteries, and from the few moments of footage from outside the monastery it seems things haven't changed too much there either. The only way in and out of Urania's nunnery is to be lowered down in a net from the buildings on top, a metaphor for being trapped if ever there was one.
Stathoulopoulos makes his camera still and impassive allowing the images to breathe and speak for themselves. It's a great way of capturing the quiet, peaceful isolation of these communities and the silence that life there must bring. It also captures the dramatic, stark beauty of the surroundings, of the rocky pillars towering over the landscape. It's not hard to see why the monks chose this spot in the first place and Stathoulopoulos provides breathtaking image after breathtaking image. Yet his impassive use of the camera is not just about the beauty of the image but also allow the viewer to observe what is going on and draw their own conclusions; to look at how the characters wrestle with the issues.
In contrast to this however, these scenes are intercut with the animated scenes, no less beautiful or stark, but certainly more expressive and emotional. It's as if they stand to offer a commentary on the live action images that make up the majority of the film. It's here that the characters' inner lives are revealed, the emotions they have shut away beneath the surface.
Interwoven through all of this are various references to, and citations of, Psalm 23 and the film wrestles with passage as things progress. The words have a comforting feel to them, but the images we see tend to conflict with them. There are no green pastures or still waters. The most memorable scene of a "table being laid" is not in the presence of enemies, yet breeds enmity. Most strikingly of all is the scene of shepherds handling their goats and doing to one what shepherds ultimately do to all those in their care, which the sheep in the psalm somehow fails to anticipate. It's one of several moments in the film when the peaceful atmosphere is broken by something more jarring. The events are not overly dramatic in themselves, but set against the calming quietness of monastic life they stand out like the Metéoran pillars themselves.
Perhaps the film's most dramatic scene is one of animated scenes when Theodoroas comes face to face with Jesus on the cross (pictured above). Throughout the film Theodoros' visual similarity to Jesus has been obvious, but here it is made even more explicit. And as with many films which include a climatic encounter with the crucified Christ this one is decisive and pivotal. Yet there's also an ambiguity about the meaning of this scene. The imagery is striking an potent and yet Stathoulopoulos' refuses to tell his audience what to think or how to interpret his work. It's in keeping with this film which offers much food for thought without pushing hard answers.
Metéora is available on the subscription viewing service MUBI until the 15th May. (For what it's worth, it's a great service).
I should add that this isn't my original version of this review. That was quite good and then the app I'd done it on crashed and now it's all gone. Sadly whilst I got back most of the content I don't have the time to make this read as well as before. Oh well.