(director/writer: Penny Panayotopoulou; cinematographer: Dimitris Katsaitis; editors: Petar Markovic/Angelos Angelopoulos; music: Stavros Sofianopoulos; cast: Giorgos Karayannis (Elias), Stelios Mainas (Elias’ Father), Ioanna Tsirigouli (Elias’ Mother), Hristos Bouyotas (Aris), Grandmother (Despo Diamantidou), Christos Stergioglou (Uncle Theodosius/Godfather); Runtime: 108; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Costas Lambropoulos/Thanassis Karathanos/Penny Panayotopoulou; Sipapu Films; 2002-Greece-Germany-in Greek with English subtitles)

“Greek director-writer Penny Panayotopoulou’s compelling debut feature is a psychological drama about an Athenian family dealing with grief.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Greek director-writer Penny Panayotopoulou’s compelling debut feature is a psychological drama about an Athenian family dealing with grief. It’s set in 1969, the miraculous year of the moon landing, and is told through the eyes of the lonely but sensitive 10-year-old Elias (Giorgos Karayannis). He lives with his parents and his 14-year-old brother Aris (Hristos Bouyotas), who pretends to be 21-year-old. Housewife mom (Ioanna Tsirigouli) can’t hide her pain from the family over hubby’s long absences from home. Dad (Stelios Mainas), a struggling traveling salesman, takes pleasure in bringing his favorite son Elias chocolate bars when he returns, playfully teaching him how to shave, taking him on fun car rides, and reading from Jules Verne’s From Earth to the Moon, which fuels the child’s imagination about the unknown. The loving father promises to return in time from his next road trip so that they will watch together the televised moon landing.

But the father is unable to keep that promise. Elias will not accept the truth that his father is dead, even as his mother and brother try to explain to him the reality that his dad won’t be returning from this business trip. His divorced uncle/godfather Theodosius (Christos Stergioglou), who lives with his elderly, senile, and reality denying grandmother (Despo Diamantidou), tries to take the place of Elias’s father, but though Elias accepts his kindness he still retreats into his own fantasy world and remains in a state of denial. Even at school, Elias makes up a story about his black armband to the other children, telling them he’s only wearing it to fool the teacher into not disciplining him for talking in class.

The film is thrown on the shoulders of the youngster, and he comes through with a strong performance as someone very believable (he’s no goody-goody, even a bit snippy), affecting (each member of a grieving family mourns in their own way and cannot be judged with how they deal with grief), and able to richly convey his little boy’s inner world (something that few other child performer’s were ever able to do as well). In this coming-of-age, sober, intelligent, and inspirational film (it’s not a sad film, despite the subject-matter, but it never matures beyond its beautiful still-life quality it frames in almost every scene), Elias uses his imagination in a very smart Jules Verne way to come to terms in his own way with the death of his father. How he finally accepts the truth is skillfully done by the filmmaker and worth seeing for yourself.

“Hard Goodbyes: My Father” won the Interfaith Award at the 2004 St. Louis International Film Festival (the award was selected by a jury made up of religious leaders of different faiths and film people). Giorgos Karayannis won the 2002 Locarno International Film Festival’s Leopard Prize for Best Actor. The Children’s Jury of the 2002 Olympia International Film Festival gave it its Best Feature Prize. It has continued to do very well on the festival circuit, and is currently slowly working its way around the country.

REVIEWED ON 2/20/2005 GRADE: B   https://dennisschwartzreviews.com/