Insufficient Memory Space. Revisiting Mania, a film by George Panousopoulos (1985)
by Venia Vergou
Rediscover a ‛forgotten’ film about breaking free of all conventions through the personal journey of a woman lost in the National Garden of Athens. Welcome to the jungle
“Until today we had actors, crew, directors. Thanks to George Panousopoulos and Mania we have the first filmmaker, that is to say someone who perceives his film as an extension of his body, of his physical presence, of his gaze, of his direct relation to things: Mania exists in such an arbitrary way (and natural, at the same time), as the way that Panousopoulos is attached to cinema. That is why the real protagonist of Mania is neither a plot, a message, an actress, nor ‘beautiful images’. The real star of the film is the man who created it: a filmmaker who doesn’t protect himself by hiding behind the camera, but rather exposes himself physically all the time through the flickering presence of his gaze. In a national cinema full of directors who make safe choices and act as the ultimate masters of films and despots of the moving image, Panousopoulos and Tornes are the most physical, therefore the least rest-assured and the most risky filmmakers we have.”
This is what Christos Vakalopoulos (one of the most prominent and influential film critics of his time) wrote about Mania. Twenty-seven years after the release of the film, I believe that there is no better way of defending it than Vakalopoulos’s argument regarding Panousopoulos’s physical involvement in Mania (in terms of script, direction, photography and editing). And it is the physicality permeating the film that makes it feel so fresh, so full of life and energy, even today.
With the plot a secondary priority for the filmmaker, the result is a highly powerful, masterfully shot film about the personal journey of a woman in the Athenian National Garden . Actually, it is a film about freedom: the freedom that is only one step away from insanity, pursued by a woman who breaks the conventions in her life. Zoi (Alexandra Vanzi), a very successful businesswoman working at a prestigious computer company in the eighties, is the only female executive chosen to go on a three-month training seminar in the USA. She shows no concern about leaving her husband and two children – a six-year-old girl, Katerina, and a baby boy, the nursing of which is, in any case, undertaken by her disapproving religious mother who lives with the family. Although a person who plays many roles (a mother, a daughter, a wife and an executive), Zoi is clearly someone who chooses to invest most of her energy in her profession. Her aspirations as a person, a very ‘square’ person, are miles away from changing baby nappies, and her identity is mostly defined by her efficiency as a career woman. This is something that Panousopoulos establishes wonderfully in his initial sequences, where Zoi is shown confidently working in the company’s offices. The good news about the trip to the States explains her willingness to offer her daughter Katerina the treat of being taken to the park later in the afternoon, much to her grandmother’s relief. But, contrary to all expectations, this stroll around the park will have immense consequences. Relaxing under the trees while her daughter plays with the other children, Zoi eavesdrops on the stories told by a man (Aris Retsos) to the mesmerised children. This seemingly mad man, who has managed to create a hidden refuge inside the garden, will lure Zoi into a journey of lust and free will. It is ultimately a journey of no return – explaining the choice of title: mania, madness, with which Zoi becomes possessed.
From this point on Panousopoulos offers the best depiction of the National Park ever made on film and his use of the park becomes the driving force of the film. After a series of encounters with pagan bands that are playing and dancing, hidden couples making love, solitary elders walking their dogs and unstoppable, playing children, Zoi gradually breaks loose, becoming a woman whose own identity is in question. She becomes the woman with the red shirt, reminiscent of the monkey with the red top that found shelter in the park earlier in the film (in a scene that signifies that no matter what developments are made, Greece still is a country that inclines towards absurdity). This whole sequence, which exposes an entire microcosm within the park and takes over the film, shows in the most cinematic way possible the battle between the primitive forces in human nature and logic.
Zoi’s transformation and surrender to her instincts is equivalent to the transformation of the two children in Walkabout by Nicolas Roeg – an amazing film famous for its juxtaposition of nature and a colonial society. And if the set up in Roeg’s film is the vast, mysterious and dry space of a desert, in Mania the natural protagonist is a garden full of trees, foliage, earth, shadows and animals, turned into a jungle through the absolute mayhem caused by Zoi. Again, Vakalopoulos’s illuminating remarks give an insight into the reading of the film:
“…The female protagonist is a mysterious person that becomes even more mysterious at the end of the film. She doesn’t explain herself to anyone… Panousopoulos’s theme is finding freedom within confinement, the transformation of prison into light…the garden of Mania leads its characters into reinventing freedom as a personal affair. No refuge is pursued, neither in History or in the selfishness of the person who ‘creates it’, nor in the cinema itself.”
And whether this ‘prison turned into light’ is Greece – a country in the South that, one way or another, devours its children with its dramas like Medea – is a hypothesis that remains to be proved. It is certainly a prison for Zoi, who ends up ‘out of data’ with ‘insufficient memory space’ and unable to continue, like her computer at the beginning of the film. This idea was perhaps unbearable for the forty thousand viewers of the film at the time of its release (it had relatively low box office takings). At a time when the middle class was increasing in prosperity under the rule of the socialists, the idea of a fast developing country with a promising future would be far more attractive than Panousopoulos’s vision.