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Moonstruck: Young Elias (Giorgos Karayannis) can't forget the promise of his dead father in 'Hard Goodbyes.'

Dad Reckoning

A boy from Athens copes with loss in 'Hard Goodbyes: My Father'

By Richard von Busack

BESIDE THE JOY that mankind felt at the first landing on the moon, 35 years ago this summer, there was a certain feeling of unease. All the world's proverbs about the unobtainability of the moon were suddenly false. The final winning of the moon had been done with such lack of drama, and Neil Armstrong was so damned laconic. (On the moon, Buzz Aldrin noted, "Philosophy and emotion were not included and, in fact, were discouraged.") Perhaps the unease was superstitious. If the dead really go up into the sky, the moon landing was a species of tomb desecration. There are movies that juxtapose space travel with earthbound loss--Lasse Hallström's My Life as a Dog and the recent Good Bye, Berlin!--but the Greek import Hard Goodbyes: My Father is more specific about connecting the moonwalk to a child's discontent as he copes with the loss of his father.

Christos (Stelios Mainas), a traveling appliance salesman from Athens, perishes in a car crash. Right before he left, he told his youngest, favorite son, Elias (Giorgos Karayannis), that he'd be home in time for them to watch the moon landing together. Director Penny Panayotopoulou doesn't stir up large emotions: the grief is silent, impressionistic and without a breath of melodrama. The funeral scene itself is evidence of Panayotopoulou's intelligence and taste. We watch the burial, peering over the whitewashed stones of a churchyard wall, and duck back; the director cuts to the face of a rustic who is wearing a white undershirt, lowering the casket into the ground with thick ropes.

The mother (Ioanna Tsirigouli) feels some resentment mixed with her grief; her husband had been on the road so much. (Their last sex scene is like a wrestling match, ending a wordless fight that lasts for days right before his departure.) She's rough with her children, shutting them out; when young Elias runs away, she treats him brutally, shoving his possessions out onto the sidewalk to punish him. We can get an idea of how absent Christos was by a clue. Young Elias used to hoard the chocolate bars his father brought him as a present during his two or three days the father would be home; we see that he has about 40 of them stashed in a footlocker under his bed.

During the month between the accident and the moon landing, Elias copes with the death using his imagination. He pretends his father is only away on business and writes letters to the family in his dad's name. On the day of the moonwalk, Elias accepts his loss. The reconciliation between mother and son is subtle; she brushes her child's shadow with her fingertips on the outside of his tent. This is Panayotopoulou's first film in 35 mm--she's better known in Greece for her TV documentaries--and the care she's lavished on the surfaces and shadows is almost enough to recommend this film on its own. The film is considered part of a cinematic new wave in her nation. Hard Goodbyes makes you want to see more of these Greek gifts.

Hard Goodbyes: My Father (Unrated; 108 min.), directed and written by Penny Panayotopoulou, photographed by Dimitris Katsaitis and starring Giorgos Karayannis, Stelios Mainas and Ioanna Tsirigouli, Friday opens at Camera 3 in San Jose.

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From the May 5-11, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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