"Unfair World": depicts a society where everyone has an ulterior motive, no one is innocent, and smiles come at a premium

The Greek people have been through a lot over the past few years: the whipping boys of European austerity, they’ve suffered brutal wage cuts, deep job losses, and endless benefit takeaways since the country’s slow motion debt crisis began in 2009. The social, economic, and emotional fallout of their national crisis is the unspoken subtext of writer-director Filippo Tsito’s brutally frank drachma — er, drama — Unfair World, screening at Pacific Film Archive as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival at 8:15 pm on Sunday, April 29th.

Sotiris (Antonis Kafetzopoulos) is an Athens policeman at the end of his tether. Though honest to a fault, he also feels deep empathy for the petty thieves and insurance scammers he’s tasked to interrogate — after all, times are hard, and people must do what they can to survive. When off duty he drinks to forget, tippling enough ouzo to send him toppling from his favorite park bench on a nightly basis.

When a case involving a truckload of illegal immigrants comes his way, Sotiris (whose police ID card actually reads ‘Sotirios’, fellow pedants) immediately finds himself sympathizing with the suspect, the owner of a local bar named (with suitable irony) Dolce Vita. Determined to see justice served, our hero cooks up a scheme with fellow cop Minas (Christas Stergioglou): buy the testimony they need to get the innocent barkeep released, while providing the near-retirement Minas a ‘beautiful finale’ for his otherwise thoroughly routine 45-year career in law enforcement.

Problem number one, of course, is getting the money, which — despite his wife’s misgivings — eventually comes out of Minas’ retirement fund. That, however, turns out to be the easy part: when presented with an envelope full of cash, their exculpatory witness — the security guard of a large office building — changes his terms at the last minute and, worst of all, accuses Sotiris of dishonesty. Offended, Sotiris pulls a gun and shoots the scoundrel dead.

In their haste to dispose of the body, Minas and Sotiris lose track of the money, compelling Sotiris to return to the scene of the crime in search of their envelope. He immediately runs headlong into the film’s third primary character, Dora (Susan Sarandon lookalike Theodora Tzimou), a cleaning lady who supplements her meager wages with frozen food stolen from the local market.

Neighbors in a nearby apartment building, the two develop a tenuous relationship in which neither is sure whether the other is being entirely truthful. Sotiris doesn’t think Dora has the envelope but Minas believes otherwise, especially after he sees her paying her bus fare with a 50 Euro note. With retirement looming, he’s determined to reclaim possession of his nest egg — even if it means throwing his partner in crime under the bus.

Set in the emptiest city this side of an Alain Resnais movie, Unfair World depicts a society where everyone has an ulterior motive, no one is innocent, and smiles come at a premium. It’s a place where an envelope of money can be passed back and forth in a game of monetary musical chairs and where “beautiful finales” are reserved for the lucky few.

The best film I’ve seen so far this year, Unfair World plays like a somber epitaph for the Hellenic Republic. In the end, Tsito suggests, someone is going to stop passing that envelope back and forth — at which point the game will be well and truly up.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.  

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Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box...