(Greece 2020; Dir: Elpida Stathatou)


Fatal ultimatum

review by Līga Požarska


length: 13

year of production: 2020

country of production: Greece

director: Elpida Stathatou

production: Felt Productions Co

director of photography: Zamarin Wahdat

editing: Jimi Drosinos

sound: Nikos Exarhos, Nikos Drakos, Jim Carey

cast: Elpida Stathatou, Themis Bazaka, Andreas Konstantinou

festivals: Encounters Film Festival 2021, Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival 2021, Norwich Film Festival 2021, Indy Shorts International Film Festival 2021, Athens International Film Festival 2021, Brest European Short Film Festival 2021

© images: 'Umbilical' (Felt Prod Co)

In Elpida Stathatou’s directorial debut ‘Umbilical’, a faith-abiding mother dreads that her daughter (played by the director-writer herself) is under a spell. At least so says the mother’s spiritual guide who’s been endlessly consulting her over the phone. The steps to break the course are as follows: the daughter needs to read a passage from the prayer book and perform an embarrassing act (to urinate in a pan). If she doesn’t do it, her boyfriend Philippos will die in a motorbike accident.

To a certain degree, superstition is not all bad and has many faces (sometimes quirky or as a sign of a non-traditional worldview). There is always that one person who warns about the risks of sitting at the corner of a table. Hell, Latvians abstain from whistling indoors and tend to knock on wooden surfaces to avoid bad things happening. Yet, it still can be seen (condescendingly) as a lack of intelligence and absence of any rational thought. ‘Umbilical’ exposes it as a harmful tool used to push forward a disastrous ultimatum.

Ultimately, this is a story about family relationships that’s grounded in a misunderstood protection from one side and a willingness to escape an overbearing parent from the other. “If something happens, you’ll be to blame,” mother threatens when Stathatou’s heroine refuses to perform the previously described ritual. We see Stathatou dodging her calls and we hear avoidance in her voice: for a while now, she's been trying to distance herself from this religious and superstitious upbringing. “Enough,” she snaps when, once again, she’s being told that she’s cursed — a rational young woman like herself understands that it’s simply a way of dragging her back in. Nevertheless, as the conversation progresses, the reason in her is silenced by fear, which urges her to imagine potential scenarios: What if Philippos really crashes? He’s already not picking up the phone. What if it will really be my fault? She caves in: reads the passage, puts her pants down and performs the ritual.

The dynamics of the dialogue reveal that the mother has a vertical understanding of religion, whereas the daughter has a horizontal one, prioritizing her earthly relationships. Needless to point out that the generation gap here is quite wide: the older character is still heavily grounded in religion, while the younger has a more modern view and is able to take her life into her own hands, not relying on some act of God. Said liberating life, happening outside of her mother’s constraints, is almost literally framed around the center of the film: Stathatou’s “doomed” boyfriend makes an appearance in the brief opening scene (showing the couple playing rock-paper-scissors), only to reappear at the very end of the film when we see both of them riding the streets on a motorcycle, suggesting that his tragic fate has been spared.

Though seemingly simple, ‘Umbilical’ is a dense film. The mother’s manipulations, bordering on emotional abuse, are the main force advancing the narrative while the daughter’s responses reveal her struggle to separate from that controlling grasp. Try as they might, it has been hard for both to break the umbilical cord between them. Notice how the mother phrases her menace: “Want me to remind you what happened the last time you didn’t listen to her?” Ergo inaction serves as a warning. We learn that she has lost a son, using this reminder to trigger trauma and remorse. The bulk of the screen time is devoted to these kinds of psychologically charged interactions, as the mother keeps pressing the daughter’s buttons.

It becomes clear that the mother has isolated herself from the outside world. She doesn’t go to the nearby kiosk herself as her daily cigarettes are brought by her daughter. There is also no father figure. Supposedly her grumpiness and blurry concept of reality have alienated a lot of people. We see an unhappy woman lacking empathy towards her close ones. Her only human contact, the mysterious fortune-teller, is silently orchestrating the lives of others, yet she never appears on-screen. The film acknowledges the presence of this spiritual guide by putting Stathatou’s mother constantly on and off the phone with her. By not visualizing her, the film gains another undertone, showing that fanaticism, often associated with religious authority, can be purely ephemeral. In this case, it’s literally just whispers in one’s ear: even without a face, it has managed to result in blind trust.

Stathatou has claimed multiple principal roles – director, writer, producer and the leading actress — intelligently approaching each of said tasks. Originally trained as an actress, she brings subtlety to the patient but fed-up protagonist. Her glances express uneasiness around Themis Bazaka’s strict mother role, rightfully portrayed as a woman lacking tenderness who switches intonation and stressfully walks around the kitchen, emphasising the tension between both ladies.

Based on a true story, it’s sensible that the subject matter hits close to home. With a minimalistic approach and loaded dialogue, Stathatou has achieved a frighteningly accurate representation of what emotional blackmail looks like — an ultimatum masquerading as well-meaning advice. The false protection against the spell is actually a cynical excuse to control someone else’s life choices and belief system.