A man receives the phone call he’s been dreading, and trudges to the hospital where his wife has been lying comatose for a period of time after a horrible accident. In the weeks since this incident, the man has been showered with sympathy from his family, friends and dry cleaner. He has relied on the kindness of his neighbors, who bring food to the man and his teenage son. He has held it together, evincing “courage” and “patience” in the face of an unthinkable tragedy. But now the worst has come to pass. Mozart’s Requiem swells as the man approaches his wife’s room, which he enters hesitantly. He is impassive. The nurse sobs. These are happy tears. His wife has regained consciousness. She is going to survive. He is no longer going to be pitied.
Thus ends the first act of Babris Makridis’s Pity, a deliciously brutal black comedy co-conceived with Yorgos Lanthimos’s frequent collaborator Efthymis Filippou. Given this pedigree, you’re immediately on guard for all manner of subversive nastiness, and the film makes no effort to conceal its mean streak. Favoring an austere, locked-down aesthetic, Makridis introduces the Lawyer (Yannis Drakopoulos) as a man of great deliberation. When he hears a knock at the door, he takes a moment to affect the perfect slumped-with-grief demeanor. He means to suck every last ounce of consolation out of the kindly neighbor (Georgina Chryskioti) who’s baked him a breakfast cake. He engages everyone this way: stone-faced, brave, but resolute of spirit. He sits at the foot of his bed every morning and bawls over the tragic circumstances thrust upon him. He gamely plays paddleball on the beach with a friend, but reverts to glumness once the competition is over.
Markridis has structured Pity as a slow burn, and this works just fine even though he tips his hand early. The Lawyer (no one is named in the film) behaves peculiarly from the outset, obsessing on the nature of grief in voice overs accompanied by title cards, but the jig is up when he interrupts a bridge game with his father and friends to marvel over the magnificent sadness of The Champ – not the 1931 Wallace Beerey/Jackie Coogan/King Vidor classic, but the 1979 Jon Voigt/Ricky Schroder/Franco Zeffirelli emotional mugging. The Lawyer is especially taken with Shroder, who wails over his father’s dead body during the film’s tragic conclusion. Faking that level of grief is difficult. The observation is so random and uninteresting to the Lawyer’s fellow card players that you can’t help but wonder who the Lawyer is addressing. It’s us, of course. He’s been in dialogue with the audience since the very beginning.
When the Wife rouses, the attention is no longer focused on the Lawyer. Their family and friends now surround her in the living room, hanging on her every word as she describes her near-death experience. The Lawyer is quietly disgusted. He wants more breakfast cakes. He enjoys sagely counseling his clients as they navigate the grieving process (he is currently working with a brother and sister who’ve lost their father to a grisly, thrill-kill murder). He loves being consoled by his dry cleaner. Ergo, in instances where he can control the meting out of information, he maintains the façade. His wife is still comatose as far as they’re concerned.
But these fleeting moments of sympathy aren’t enough to feed the Lawyer’s pity addiction. This allows Makridis and Fillipou to introduce a strain of cruelty into their absurdly misanthropic narrative. If no one is going to feel bad for this poor man, he’s just going to have to give them reasons to bake him breakfast cakes again. Pity’s formalist framework generally allows the viewer to remain emotionally disengaged throughout the film, but it’s only human nature for us to pity animals, so Makridis throws a cute family dog into the bargain just to mess with our emotions. By the end of the movie, you’re just hoping the dog will survive the carnage. It’s dirty pool, but this seemingly cheap device winds up being the masterstroke that ties Pity together. After enduring the film’s vicious climax, you leave the theater beaming. That’s a pretty neat trick.