Ewen Leslie as Isaac in <i>Dead Europe</i>.

Black odyssey … misery and misanthropy accompany Isaac (Ewen Leslie) throughout Dead Europe.

Reviewer rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Tony Krawitz's Dead Europe strips Australian novelist Christos Tsiolkas's sprawling, Gothic fable down to its bare essentials. The film is as grim as its title.

Abandon all thought of the romantic continent that Woody Allen has been celebrating lately. And park any ideas of Henry James's Old World, a place capable of charm as well as betrayal. The Europe to which we're transported is a decrepit haunted house, with each new room more dismal and sinister than the last. Foreign travel becomes an exercise in fear and loathing.

Isaac (Ewen Leslie) is a Greek-Australian photographer whose father, Vassili (William Zappa), has just died in a car crash in Sydney after trying to talk his son out of a planned trip to Athens. Vassili had never been back to his homeland. Bad wartime memories kept him away and Isaac's mother, Reveka (Eugenia Fragos), is even more adamant about the dangers that will befall her son if he makes the trip. The blackness that engulfed his father will come after him, as well. With these cheery words echoing in his ears, he sets off with several aims in mind. As well as exhibiting his photographs at an Athens gallery, he will visit his father's relatives and scatter his ashes in his home village. First, however, he must find his elusive brother, Nico, who has been living in Europe for years. Together, he thinks, they might uncover the source of their father's antipathy towards the land of his birth. And they might be able to learn more about the Jewish boy Vassili is believed to have sheltered from the Nazis.

Anti-Semitism is at the core of Tsiolkas's novel. Isaac has grown up living with his mother's prejudices against the Jews. She is Greek Orthodox, his father was an anti-religious communist, and their quarrels over Europe's ancestral blood feuds have been part of the soundtrack of his childhood. Isaac has tried to distance himself from these explosions with a matter-of fact, typically Australian disdain for superstition and bigotry, but this trip will eventually wear away this protective layer and destroy all his illusions about himself.

First, however, Krawitz gets busy thickening the atmosphere with a heavy misting of despair. He gives us the kind of Athens where no one could say ''Kalimera'' without infusing each of its syllables with menace. We're treated to so many montages of dejected people casting dirty looks in all directions that I thought Isaac, who is gay, was about to be punched in the head at one point. Instead, the glare was a come-on, an invitation to a brief sexual bout behind a clump of bushes in a nearby park. Afterwards, his partner bolts, but Isaac stays around to help a teenager who is being mugged by a bunch of thugs. The boy, Josef (Kodi Smit-McPhee), turns out to be a refugee. But before Isaac can do anything more to help him, the boy disappears. It's the first of a series of episodes designed to unnerve and disorient.

The family reunion proves to be a disaster. The only relative who welcomes Isaac's arrival is his young cousin, Giulia (Danae Skiadi), who offers to drive him to the village where he plans to leave Vassili's ashes. But the expedition ends badly with more mutterings about the potency of a family curse. And there's still no word from Nico.

The impasse is resolved by a phone call from an old friend of Isaac's father. It takes him on to Paris, where he becomes embroiled in a second refugee story involving a young Muslim woman who is another ferocious anti-Semite. It's as if the air itself is poisoned by history. Misanthropy is contagious and we're starting to see that Isaac is not immune. When his Paris acquaintance starts beating his wife with a rage born of decades of marital unhappiness, Isaac's only response is to callously photograph the results.

The climax of Isaac's odyssey takes place in Budapest, where Nico (Marton Csokas) is finally found. He is a junkie, living in squalor, and fatalistically embracing the city's potential for decadence. His scenes are among the film's best. Csokas is an infinitely adaptable actor whose villains are as compelling as his romantics. Here he is irredeemable - a gaunt, red-eyed figure who has long since surrendered any thought of change. His performance is matched by that of Smit-McPhee, who reappears to add to the tensions that are bringing Isaac undone.

It's a lot to encompass in 83 minutes, and Krawitz and the screenwriter, Louise Fox, make heavy work of trying. The theme has echoes of Nicolas Roeg's 1973 classic Don't Look Now and Paul Schrader's 1990 adaptation of Ian McEwan's novel The Comfort of Strangers, both of which are set in Venice, a city uniquely suited to stories that turn dream into nightmare. But those films were fully realised tragedies. Here, Leslie has less room to move in embodying Isaac's fall.

While Fox's script resists the novel's most dizzying flights into allegory, there is a jagged, melodramatic feel to it all. Because the misery is laid on with such enthusiasm in the early scenes, there is nowhere to go when things get really rough. Nor is there any hope for the future. In this bleakly determinist view of the world's workings, the sins of the fathers are never to be escaped.

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DEAD EUROPE

Directed by Tony Krawitz

Rated MA, 83 minutes