The following is a review of the film “An Island Named Desire,” an ensemble comedy which takes place on the Greek island of Kythera and takes on the questions raised when returning to one’s homeland to find that nothing is quite the same as it was — or at least as one remembers it.
There’s a lot going on in James Prineas’ “An Island named Desire,” with its striking imagery, caustic humour, and cheesy suffering. It’s a humane film about the difficulties of living on a backwater Greek island which looks like paradise, but, guess what? It isn’t.
I’m still not much of a cinephile (this is my second Prineas film, and I only watched “Winter on Kythera” so I could see if the island is always the protagonist in his films), but I’m coming to realise that the difference between a good movie and a great one are those moments of intense personal connection where it seems like the filmmaker is reaching out to you through the screen and whispering in your ear.
As if there is no real distance between you and the director, time has changed nothing, and the moment remains as pure as it was on the day it was filmed. There are lots of moments like that in “Desire,” between the jokes (which are great) and the absurd symbolism that admittedly sort of flies over my head.
I wasn’t surprised by those moments, but I was surprised to find that “Desire” has an actual plot (Winter on Kythera didn’t really). It isn’t complicated, but it is logical in its surreal way, and oddly suspenseful, even if the movie is constantly going out of its way to remind us that even if a character does make the occasional rational decision they’ll wind up in strife sooner or later.
Thus I discovered the plot: Georgos and his sister Poppy are Kytherian beekeepers and general hillbillies returning home with a plane-load of money after a fleeting and eventful migration to Australia – “events” including crocodile-encounters and struggles with pesky Greek-Australian lawyers.
The source of their new fortune is only hinted at. Their nephew Georgy – yes, all the men in the film are called “George” or variations of it – played by Athenian theatre poster-boy Georgios Papageorgiou – washes up incognito on the shores of Kythera after failing to even make it to Australia. Destitute, he avoids his mother’s scathing tongue by hiding out at Poppy and Georgos’ crumbling “rural estate”.
Meanwhile Old Georgos meets Death wielding a pretty hot saxophone (played by gifted Chilean musician José Lezaeta). To buy himself some time, Georgos challenges Death to a game of backgammon. If he wins, Death will leave him to care for his sister Poppy. But, seriously, does anyone beat Death?
We follow Poppy and Georgos bickering across the Kytherian countryside – Georgos is intent on living the high-life in a mansion complete with hot tub and drop-dead gorgeous blond Russian nurse ( played by film’s composer Katya Surikova, so not just a pretty face after all), while his sister can’t keep away from the chickens & edible weeds, always longing for the old bumpkin’ life.
To make it even harder to keep up with the ensemble of animals and humans populating the film, the mysterious and ravishing young Miranda (Ella Cook) has come to Kythera to track down her biological parents. Soon she is worried that she might actually be related to one or any of the weird troop who pop up like jack-in-the-boxes around her. Miranda’s sharp tongue and twinkling eyes turn young Georgy’s head and it looks like we’re in for some romance (Spoiler: We’re not).
Death gets to be our island guide as he eliminates – albeit humanely – generous sections of the ageing island population while surrounded by stunning scenery, some of which he seems to incinerate in his wake. While Death is morbidly distracted, Old Georgos, fearing his backgammon skills are no match for the Dark Lord, makes the most of his time left by becoming Amazon’s Customer of the Month, purchasing hunting hats and bb-guns and everything else he probably ever longed for before he hit the jackpot.
As if three plots weren’t enough, there are lots of things going on behind the scenes: Drunk Italian party girls walk across the island hoping they’re on Mykonos; Albanian assassins who double as chauffeurs looking for their next victim; talk of naughty priests converting a famed church into a casino; and a Blind Taxi Driver who conveys any and all of the characters across the island in the blink of a sightless eye.
These subplots aren’t entirely superfluous, yet lack the an expected resolution. Red Herrings, or did a ruthless editor slash and burn to get the film down to 90 minutes?
The film borrows more from Tennessee William’s “A Streetcar named Desire” than just the title; dialogue from the classic play pops up throughout the new film, sometimes seamlessly, sometimes just adding to the general flow of madness which keeps the film flying through a warped but loveable Greek universe.
The giveaway is when Old Georgos reveals to Poppy that he has been visited by Death (“And he plays a pretty mean saxophone!”) but claims his death will actually come more romantically: “One day I will die here holding the hand of my blonde Russian nurse. ‘Poor him,’ they’ll say, ‘this unwashed grape has transported his soul to heaven.’” It’s actually more credible than Blanche’s demented lines in the original. The famous “Stella!” scream from the play is also included if you are patient enough to see the credits to the end.
The protagonist playing a game with Death for his life isn’t original either. Bergman’s classic “The Seventh Seal” is a constant companion in the film. At the very end the lethal Chilean saxophonist blows jazz up a windy Greek hill, leading his victims all the way to the next world. It’s surreal. Yet Kythera seems a likely place for it to happen.
By the way, has anyone ever heard of Kythera? I looked it up and it is a real island. But no one has much good to say about it: “What imaginations must those Greek poets have had to have given deathless renown to this desolate, wind-bound, treeless and unfrequented island.”
There are all sorts of possible lessons to take from “An Island named Desire,” but this is the most practical one: Kythera can’t offer those who stay on the island much in the way of a livelihood, but it’s a damn entertaining place to spend a humble life.
Thankfully, Prineas leaves us with some hope for the characters, even if the island itself remains brutally stingy in its prospects. I love the scene roughly halfway into the picture when another prominent character (plot number 6sixand counting…), the hapless and ancient Grandpa Vasili, scrambles to make a few bucks to buy his granddaughter much needed shoes. He sets up a stand at the Sunday Market and becomes the “Weed King of Kythera”, selling any old grass to unsuspecting hippies.
Vasili doesn’t make any money. But he seems happy enough. We may all one day be the punchline in some cosmic joke – let’s call it “Corona” for now – which leaves us selling whatever we can scrounge, but we can still care for each other, just like Vasili for his granddaughter, and like Poppy and her dying brother Georgos.
Just because the connections and passions that make life worth living are also what make us fear death, doesn’t make them any less joyous.
For now, as I type these words and look out to the morning, wondering about a strange place called Kythera, that’s good enough for me.
“An Island Named Desire” is available for online streaming or DVD purchase. Click here to visit the film’s official website.
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