Accidentally, on two consecutive days of the 64th Thessaloniki Film Festival, I saw several films that definitely respond to the current concern about the status of women in modern society. Moreover, the topic is enriched with interesting references to historical, socio-economic, and individually psychological aspects.
Such an extremely impressive look at the past suggests the new Greek film Murderess (Fonissa) by director Eva Nathena. She makes her debut with this full-length feature film, but before that she had a successful short film called Antigoni Sofokli (2022). And something else, which is more important in this case – she has gained a very useful experience as a costume designer and stage designer in more than 20 feature films!
The plot of Murderess is situated in the year 1900 on a remote Aegean island where old traditional family relationships rule peremptorily. They are valid for the entire local society and a source of the plot drama when the matriarchal mother-daughter axis collides with patriarchal practicality, especially when it comes to the marriage of a daughter and the associated compulsory dowry. Therefore, in poor families, the birth of a second girl was indeed a huge ordeal. And then the tragic practice of killing the new-born second girls came! This drastic, anti-human and anti-Christian step from the past sounds shocking today, but it is a historical fact. In 1836, the Consul of the Sporades group of islands required the Ministry of Justice to repeal the Dowry Law in order to stop this tacit practice. But the law was officially abolished only in 1983! These are the brutal historical facts that Murderess is based on! By the way, the original Greek title Fonissa literally means female killer! It also adds artistic credibility to the film. Therefore, it stands out in the new feminist wave with its own place and its own weight, since it illuminates old authentic traditions, rather than new declarations of today.
To recreate this theme on the screen, Eva Nathena, together with the co-screenwriter Katerina Bei, trust a very solid foundation—the classic novel of the writer Alexandros Papadiamantis (1851-1911), an author of fiction and poetry, who knew perfectly well his time and the local Aegean customs. It is not by chance that another great Greek writer, Odysseas Elytis (1911-1996), wrote strong words about his novel: “One day the past will spring upon us with its exceedingly timely momentum. The past itself will not have changed, but our minds will”.
Murderess is a very well structured film with remarkable cinematic qualities. The drama is dense and plot-wise logical, set in high-impact locations on a stony rugged landscape, with poor stone houses, very sparse set, and impressively authentic costumes from that period. There is no surprise about the latter, knowing the director’s experience as an artist in cinema and a screen designer! The images are gorgeous, with a very stylish unobtrusive composition of the frame, with a discreet colour scheme like a tired flashback, and it is perceived almost as a perfect black and white drawing!
But a particularly important quality of the film’s narrative is the inner monologue of the main character, Hadoula, who realizes how deadly her “help” is for the poor families. She is known in the village as a healer and midwife, but she also performs other “services” for worried fathers who cannot afford to raise a second daughter. And upon introspection, during the birth of a girl her mind whispers: “Virgin Mary, why did you bring her into this world?” Towards the end, she realizes her mental turmoil with a great unanswered pain: “Why, Lord, do I want to do good, but it is bad?”
The actress, Karyofyllia Karabeti is convincing in her interpretation of the complex image, with a wide range of psychological states, despite her restrained presence on the screen. She is an undisputed directing success both as a choice and exceptional on-camera behaviour.
The short synopsis of the film could be of just three words: The Fate of Being a Woman! However, Murderess is a powerful dramatic crucifixion of the female psyche, served up in a stylish and expressive cinematic language. Therefore, it is a very good film, and deserves to find its widest audience! By the way, in Thessaloniki there was a very rare coincidence: the Audience award and FIPRESCI prize went to Murderess, among altogether 6 prizes!
P.S. In the end credits of the film, one reads the shocking information that since 1990, more than 100 million women in the world have been considered demographically “missing”, which means that they have been the subject of gendercide! And in 2013, the European Parliament was shocked by the forecast that this number could grow to 200 million!
Put shortly, Murderess has a very strong social-historical subject, but mixed with powerful contemporary reflections about the women’s statute today! That’s why it deserves to be seen as early as today!
© FIPRESCI 2023