It takes the viewer into a world of nightmares and dreamscapes where past and present, and truth and imagination, all run together.
For a certain type of film, mood is just about everything. It almost doesn’t matter what the story is or what the characters are like: if the filmmaker can induce the intended feelings in the audience, that’s all that’s required. The Winter, the first film directed by visual effects artist Konstantinos Koutsoliotas (who worked on, among other things, Guardians of the Galaxy and Nine), is that kind of a film. Beautifully paced and exquisitely shot (by Kuba Kossak), it takes the viewer into a world of nightmares and dreamscapes where past and present, and truth and imagination, all run together.
Nikos (newcomer Theo Albanis) is an extreme example of a type familiar in the literary world—a sensitive young man who claims to be a writer, but whose efforts so far have mainly gone into crafting his persona rather than doing any actual writing. He dresses in hipsterish 19th-century clothing (complete with a stovepipe hat and fingerless gloves, the latter presumably because he can’t afford heat), lives in a messy flat furnished with a manual typewriter and a desk covered with collection notices, and looks for all the world like a sad little puppy that needs your love, some food and a warm place to sleep.
When we first meet Nikos, he’s living in chilly London. His mother thinks he should come home to Greece, and after getting fired from his job in a publisher’s office (the lobby is a nightmare of glaring black-and-white modernism, and the HR rep speaks entirely in fragments of corporate jargon) and failing in his attempt to touch up a friend for a place to live, he takes Mom’s advice and heads back to his native land. He doesn’t go to see his mother, however, but takes up residence in a crumbling villa once owned by his father, Dimitri (Vangelis Mourikis). It’s a mess—clearly no one has lived there for some time—but full of mementos from Nikos’ childhood, and little matters like the lack of electricity fit his retro affectations just fine.
Being in his father’s former home brings back lots of memories of childhood: mostly of his parents fighting, which led to their divorce, but also of events that happened before Nikos was born. He also remembers the scary bedtime stories Dimitri used to tell him, and Koutsoliotas alternates between scenes of the father telling a scary story to young Nikos and the same story illustrated with spooky, shadow puppet-like animations. A neighbor takes pity on Nikos, feeding him and telling him more about his father’s life after Nikos’ mother left while also reading tea leaves and offering folk remedies against the cold. The local Orthodox priest also provides some background about his father, and Nikos decides to try to find out more about the circumstances of his father’s early death.
As Nikos becomes more a part of this isolated small town, which seems to exist largely outside the modern world (there is an internet café, but it’s not really what the town is about), his life in London, dunning notices and all, becomes less and less real to him. This backwater (Siatista, in Northern Greece) strikes Nikos as the perfect place to finally finish his book (which a friend reminds him he’s been saying since high school), and besides, his creditors will track him down to here.
Kotsoliotis is a master of visual storytelling, and you don’t so much perceive the story in this film as feel like you’re living inside it. Even the opening credits are brilliant, with names and titles worked quite convincingly into the detritus (mainly collection notices and the like) on Nikos’ desk. The need to read a few subtitles (there’s not a lot of dialogue, but what there is is mostly in Greek) shouldn’t discourage anyone who likes broody mysteries from seeing this one—it’s one of the best examples of a slow-burn, psychological horror film that I’ve seen in years, and it delivers one hell of a wallop in the end.
The Winter is distributed on DVD and streaming by IndiePix Films. Extras on the DVD include four featurettes and the film’s trailer (27 min. total). One word of warning: when you put the disc in, the menu comes up, but you can’t control it with your remote for several minutes, during which time you are treated to a mood-setting song (in what I assume was Greek—there are no subtitles) and appropriately desolate images. | Sarah Boslaugh