KALA AZAR (MIFF 2020) – Review by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

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There’s nothing in Janis Rafa’s debut feature film Kala Azar that renders the fact her background is in video art even remotely surprising. An intuitive sense for the temporal beats of seeming nothingness, an eye for the textural density of the moving image as a canvas-in-motion, and a unrelenting faith in sensory experience over complex narrative or characterization are all markers of this striking movie that further explodes the boundaries of what supposedly makes up that amorphous beast, the Greek Weird Wave.

The film follows Penelope (Penelope Tsilika) and Dimitris (Dimitris Lalos) as they drift through their workdays together; shagging and eating boiled eggs as they drive from client to client, picking up the carcasses of beloved domestic pets no longer living in the mortal realm. The commercial ritual in the homes they visit largely rests upon Penelope’s shoulders as she recites a well-worn script about respecting the pet-owners grief, requesting signatures, and receiving payment as Dimitris looks on with what superficially at least appears to be respectful silence before taking the dead animal out to the back of their van to transport to their place of work. Here, the animals are cremated and the ashes collected with far less ceremony than Penelope’s familiar spiel might suggest – pouring ashes into tiny containers, they return these to the grieving owners before it all starts over again: shagging, eating, picking up more dead pets.

But there is nothing cynical in this cycle of life and death. In Kala Azar, the line between human and animal is frequently blurred; in one beautiful scene, we see Penelope’s mother sitting in a bath bathing both her large, lovely dog and herself at the same time. The intimacy and patience of pet ownership is likewise revealed in a tender, wordless sequence where Penelope’s father patiently administers a pill to another of their rambunctious canines.

Much to the disapproval of her and Dimitris’ boss, Penelope has a soft spot for collecting roadkill, bringing them back to the work facility to grant them the same right to cremation as the more loved, domesticated pets that are their bread and butter. And there are other, more subtle moments where the animal and the human blur; a bird-lover mourning a dearly departed pet seems to have traces of bird seed in his hair as he discusses cremation arrangements with Penelope, and at one point Penelope herself strikes more than a passing similarity to a happy labrador, her head out the car window as her long dark hair flaps on each side of her head like glossy doggy ears.

Stradling the thematic terrain of the sacred and profane, Kala Azar also pits the sombre rituals of mourning in contrast with the banal administration that drives these rituals. Set in a fascinating liminal space between the rural and the industrial, the domestic sits amongst this wasteland in curious discomfort. Kala Azar is full of such binaries, but it is ultimately that between life and death itself that renders it such a thoughtful, moving yet almost constantly out of reach meditation of things much bigger than the sum of its parts.

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Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is an award-winning film critic from Melbourne, Australia. She was an editor at Senses of Cinema from 2015 to 2018, and is a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic whose other publications including Film International, Flicks, Diabolique Magazine, Vulture, Overland, The Big Issue and her own website, The Blue Lenses. She has written eight books on cult, horror and exploitation cinema and co-edited collections on Elaine May, Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani, and Alice in Wonderland in film. Alexandra is a programmer at Austin’s Fantastic Fest and an Adjunct Professor at Deakin University.