By Arlene McKanic
Last week the Queens Museum of Art screened Nick Efteriades’ full length indie film, “Astoria,” which was part of the Independent Film and Video Showcase co-presented by the Greek Cultural Center. A reception was held beforehand that starred all sorts of Hellenic goodies, including phyllo, squares of feta cheese and dolmades, stuffed grape leaves.
“I don’t really know what I’m doing here,” one woman said to me.
“I’m not Greek.”
“I’m not Greek either,” I said before I bit into another stuffed grape leaf.
The film is a story of local working class immigrant stock trying to make it in America a la “The Brothers McMullen,” “Astoria” centers on Alex (Rick Stear), a handsome but broody 28-year-old Greek-American whose one ambition is to go to Greece and find the tomb of Alexander the Great, the chap who
Alex can’t help but recall conquered much of the known world by the time he was 30. The only thing our Alex has conquered is how to make a decent ouvlaki platter at his father Demos’ (Ed Setrakian) sandwich shop. This burns him up; he is, after all, a college grad. He’s not helped by Demos’ assumption that he’ll one day inherit the shop or the preposterous schemes of his buds in the neighborhood, especially the trash-mouthed, jive-talking and adorable Theo (Joseph D’Onofrio in a movie-stealing turn). Demos, who gambles on the Greek men’s social club circuit, is up to his eyeballs in debt to the villainous Hammer brothers, Lakis and Mitsos.
After Demos is roughed up, his shop trashed and his car damaged, Alex, with some delightfully underhanded help from Theo, decides to step up to the plate and bail his father out in a reversal of all those patricidal Greek myths. He’s also inspired by the arrival of Theo’s beautiful and talented cousin Elena (Paige Turco) who’s come in from Greece to do some icon restoration at the local church.
As a girl growing up in traditional Greek society, her road to success has been even tougher than Alex’s. She’s had to “fight, yell and scream” to make it, something that Alex takes to heart. But can he stand up to the Hammers?
His energy level is raised considerably with the arrival of Elena and the increasing threat to his father. At his best, Stear resembles Keanu Reeves in his poutier moments. Setrakian imbues his sandwich shop owner with a bruised pride and a warm, befuddled heart. To him America is “the land of the fat people,” and he’s hankered after that fatness since his childhood in Greece. He might be traditional — hearing Elena, a woman, talk politics in his home scandalizes him — but his love for his son forces him to look enough past his old patterns of thought and habit to want Alex to succeed.
Turco, known for her roles on “NYPD Blue” and “Party of Five,” is all smarts and gleaming smile, but with enough roots in the soil of the Old Country to take intense interest when Alex’s put-upon mother Soula (Geraldine Librandi) reads the grinds in her coffee cup and to goes no further than a few chaste kisses with Alex.
Steven J. Christofer chews up the scenery as Lakis, a creature as oily as a roomful of pithari; one keeps waiting for him to twirl his mustache. Yianni Sfinias is funny as the bald and beastly dumb
Mitsos. But it’s D’Onofrio, who played the young Tommy DeVito in “Goodfellas,” who reveals his genius for playing the charming, fast talking bum whose get-rich-quick schemes change like the weather but whose loyalty is unstinting. Guys like these are all over the city. You know them — one of them is your cousin. D’Onofrio, with his doughy face and raven haired pompadour, makes playing one of these bozos look easy.
Efteriades directs with a compassion born from deep knowledge of the people and the places explored in his film, and his talent and passion keep the narrative from veering into the realm of the facile TV movie. He’s helped by Stuart Emanuel’s skillful editing and Elia Lyssy’s cinematography. Lyssy gives us tasty shots of the Triborough Bridge and the skyline at night, and a subtly lit shot of a museum gallery full of antiquities. The interior of a Greek Orthodox church, full of icons, gold work and flickering votive candles, is photographed with such attention to detail that one can nearly smell the incense
Most poignantly, Lyssy’s camera even makes one mindful of the walls of Demos’ sandwich joint, which are painted an aching Aegean blue. Efteriades also wrote the script, and one almost takes the dialogue for granted; this is how people in Little Athens speak, after all, in that aggrieved Queens accent peppered by snatches of Greek. Astoria, made on a budget “of what Julia Roberts gets for lunch,” according to Efteriades, is a worthwhile film. It will open in theaters in January and February.
Major funding for the showcase, by the way, was provided by Con Edison.
Reach Qguide writer Arlene McKanic by e-mail at Timesledger.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 139.