Welcome to a little boy’s nightmare, courtesy of the cold and cruel world of adulthood’s many sins. Son of Sofia is the powerful sophomore effort from Greek filmmaker Elina Psykou. Using transitions between a harsh, stern reality and the deeply dark realm of an abused and neglected child’s imagination, it’s a haunting expedition into a shadow world of juvenility without light and hope. Nestled in the core of this savage trek, however, is an important discovery. What is the outcome of insight? This film seeks the answer to this through a beautiful and besmirched prism, where disillusionment is uncovered as a fractured form of enlightenment.
Misha is the protagonist, played by young kid/old soul Victor Khomut, awkwardly trudging through damaged psychic ground. The fatherless boy is reunited with his long-distant mother, a widow who left their native Bulgaria to make more money for her only child. Having worked two years in Greece to be with her son again, Sofia has managed a new life for her offspring by way of marrying a much older well-to-do gentleman. Our grade school hero is immediately oppressed by his erstwhile new dad. The stately codger works diligently to force-feed Greek culture down the throat of a young mind formed in an atmosphere still highly influenced by Soviet-era nostalgia. The old man also happens to be a retired TV star who used to host a goofy children’s show. Airing during an era of military dictatorship, his creepy program pulled double duty as propaganda for the youth of Greece – unpeeling yet another generational layer of subjugation of the young. He’s also got a lifetime’s worth of props and costumes, perfect to feed a precocious brain’s grimmest flights of fancy. And this film perfectly materializes all of it in ghastly relief.
Misha alternates between betrayal and seduction, feeling constantly lied to by his mother – the only person he loves at all – and tempted by a slightly older but much rougher friend offering him a sort of perverse “Lost Boys” life as an underage prostitute. Inserted between painfully rigid scenes of captive frustration, and dangerous moments reminiscent of My Own Private Idaho, Misha immerses himself into Cocteau-esque alternate realities. Figures from his life and he himself are re-molded as grotesque amalgams of failed humanity and the stuffed animals his mother makes by day. Once the element of the oddball vintage TV props and wardrobe kicks in, the visions become more macabre, reflecting the evolving nature of his real-life troubles. These are horror scenes, the type of which you might find in a David Lynch sequence, only far more painfully deconstructive. Frozen funhouse moments crafted in Misha’s disturbed sensibilities are hard-hitting and not easily forgotten.
The escalation of events takes both audience and protagonist deeper into a cinematic closet of delirium. Coincidental tragedies are amplified by Misha’s rebellious attitude of self-sabotage, all in a desperate play for freedom. The crescendo of the film is a violent, corybantic discharge of every mistake and lesson the boy has sponged into his emotional world over the course of the narrative. It becomes a literal parade of the macabre, where self-degradation and indulgent fantasy seem to be reasonable counterstrokes to life’s very unreasonable slings and arrows.
This is a grueling film which speaks to every powerless moment all humans have experienced as preteens. Conducting a highly tactile sense of restriction, the release we’re all waiting for from the film finally reveals itself to be “up in the air” in the final scene’s valediction. Films like this form their own language, as Psykou draws from two oppressive cultures to paint her mise en scène. Imbued with the highly injurious losses we suffer in our formative years, Son of Sofia has it all in the title. Establishing early on that “Sophia” means “wisdom,” the work thus casts Misha as the offspring of knowledge. That’s what the film is really trying to express and explore: the afterbirth of awareness and cognition. And it does it very, very well.