Film Review: Worlds Apart

With its three intercultural and ultimately connected love stories told with the backdrop of unrest in Greece, 'Worlds Apart' is a naive exercise in empathy that unintentionally enters troubling territory with its simplistic take on politics.
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At the core of basic decency lies the most vital of human traits: the ability to empathize. Free from religious, geographic and political preoccupations, it’s that aptitude––or its tragic absence––that often drives and defines our individual contributions to a collective experience around the globe. In his second narrative feature, Greek writer-director (and actor) Christopher Papakaliatis delivers an exercise in this imperative ingredient of every moral person’s conscience, to vastly varied (and at times angering) results. Despite presenting its argument—that each of us has a unique story to tell and a struggle to overcome, and therefore should listen to one another—from an honest if not simplistic place, Worlds Apart emerges with dirt on its hands it likely didn’t intend to touch.

Papakaliatis’ anthology-style film basically unfolds around three separate love stories set in contemporary Athens, with a Greek and a foreigner at the center of each. The shared backdrop of all is an economically ravaged Greece, trying to keep its head above water amid a Southern Europe struck by political unrest and a growing refugee crisis. In the first melodramatic love story that loosely recalls the likes of West Side Story and Romeo and Juliet, we follow Farris (the wonderful Tawfeek Barhom of The Idol and A Borrowed Identity), a Middle Eastern immigrant, and Daphne (Niki Vakali), a politically opinionated young Greek woman. The two meet in a fairytale fashion, when Daphne gets physically assaulted, and Farris saves both the damsel-in-distress and the day. The young lovers carry their euphoric bond out to the streets of Athens and spend lazy afternoons and evenings in an abandoned plane in the city’s old airport, where Farris illegally lives. But they eventually face the wrath of Daphne’s father, a fascistic, anti-immigration thug.

In the second chapter, which brings Up in the Air to mind, Giorgos (Papakaliatis) works for a company in the process of tightening its belt and cutting down on its staff. A department head stuck in a crumbling marriage, he meets and goes to bed with the Scandinavian Elise (Andrea Osvart), who, to the surprise of both, happens to be an efficiency expert hired to process layoffs within Giorgos’ company. Soon enough, conflicts around relationship and business priorities arise between the two casual lovers.

In the film’s final and only organic-feeling segment, which shows a trace of thoughtful realism, Maria (Maria Kavoyianni), a Greek housewife coping with financial struggles, and Sebastian, a German immigrant (Oscar-winner J.K. Simmons, with a puzzling accent), meet by chance in front of a supermarket and make its aisles the backdrop of their burgeoning romance, while philosophically dissecting love, aging and hardship despite severe language barriers.

In all three chapters, language-based communication limitations between lovers both stifle the action, and strangely charge it with a touch of unintended innocence. But this doesn’t necessarily alleviate the outdated, clunky naiveté of the film’s premise, rooted in an “Everyone is connected” structure, reminiscent of the kinds of films Alejandro G. Iñárritu used to make in the early 2000s. Looking past its muddied gender dynamics (the second chapter doesn’t seem to have a lot of patience for successful women) and unsophisticated political stance juxtaposed against love and Greek mythology, Worlds Apart takes its hardest hit once Papakaliatis (predictably) ties the three stories together in a cathartic epilogue of sorts, that aims for the heart but misses its target with an unfortunate “twist.” The finale pretty much hijacks the trauma of an underprivileged immigrant and indirectly makes it belong to a fascist, who thus far had shown no inclination to empathize with fellow human beings. Once the tragedy knocks on his door and victimizes one of his own, the film confusingly asks for our unearned sympathy. This might be an unintended and unfortunate side effect of Papakaliatis’ big-hearted and well-intended motivation to show all sides of a rather complex political situation. But nonetheless, it’s a mightily troubling one, too.

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