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Simon Read [Celluloid 06.23.14] Greece scifi drama

Dimitris Bavellas's unusual and ponderous sci-fi drama is set in Athens during the outbreak of a bizarre phenomenon which sees people inexplicably fleeing the city en masse, and follows three characters as they wander around the empty streets interacting with strangers and attempting to forget their various troubles. Shot in black and white, it's a beautifully made little film which takes an admirably creative approach to a social and political commentary of the current financial crisis in Greece. Unfortunately I found it almost unwatchably slow and boring.

Runaway Day starts with a mock '60s newsreel advertising the benefits of life in Athens, showing period scenes of modernist architecture, cheerful citizens and bustling streets, before cutting to footage of the more recent riots and civil unrest which have occurred in the country, all while the narrator ironically continues to exhort the virtues of living in the "greatest city in the Balkans". We are then introduced to the central characters as they leave their respective homes and places of work, without any thought as to where they are going; they just feel the need to escape. Loukas is an unemployed and childlike slacker with mounting debts, Iossif is the world-weary creditor tasked with collecting those debts, and Maria is a wealthy but unfulfilled housewife with an unsympathetic husband. We follow this odd trio for most of the film, observing the moments where their paths almost cross as they search for meaning or fulfillment. Each of them experiences something new, whether it's visiting a seedy porno theatre, stealing a stranger's car or stripping naked in a field to connect with nature. Meanwhile, the television and radio broadcasts report that all over the county people are "running away", and the government and army are powerless to stop them.

The film is introduced with the air of an old-fashioned sci-fi B-movie, and we suspect this epidemic will play out in zombie plague style as the characters' strange reactions suggest something otherworldly is happening. Runaway Day quickly establishes itself as something altogether more meditative though, as the central characters seem dully oblivious to the problem. Bavellas doesn't show us much in the way of actual chaos or carnage; apart from the news reports, which are read by an amusingly angry and confrontational presenter, we only see occasional and brief shots of citizens running out of their offices, through the streets and over bridges. The protagonists meanwhile simply stumble about in a slight daze. Loukas is victimised by an angry pedestrian who mistakes him for a thief, Maria decides to see what happens when she doesn't pay for a coffee, and is chased down the street by a distressed waiter before wandering the corridors of a derelict building, and Iossif drives around the city before finally confronting his oldest debtor with a compromise. The whole affair has a kind of Godard or Fellini type feel to it, as it's virtually free of narrative and the dialogue is perfunctory and sparse.

The overall effect of the film's rambling story, cutting as it does between episodes in each character's journey, is an agonisingly glacial pace without any hint of momentum or purpose or resolution. The festival guide (unreliable as always) hints that this is an anarchic, surf-rock inflected homage to '50s sci-fi, which was why I wanted to see it, but on checking my watch when I assumed the film was almost finished I was horrified to see that it was not even halfway through. I slid off my seat and lay on the floor in a foetal position for five minutes before deciding to man-up and stay to the end.

To give Bevellas (also credited as writer) his due, Runaway Day looks lovely. It's well shot, the camera work is consistently inventive and the scenes of deserted subway stations and empty streets are pleasingly eerie. There are one or two amusing moments and several striking images on display, and the film does end with a curiously upbeat little tableau as the characters congregate in a square where a small crowd has come to a halt in order to watch an impromptu rock concert take place. Make of that what you will.

I could not help thinking about how precious life is, not due to anything in the film, but because I had so much time during the screening to consider the fact that I was alive and breathing and at some point I will not be. When a film reduces you to such a monumental level of existential depression, it's perhaps best to admit that it has defeated you, and it's time to run away.

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