Review: “I am thinking of you [in Streams]” – ‘Bella’ (2020), dir. Thelyia Petraki

by Ioannis Andronikidis

“Dear Alexandra, 

Stockholm is so cold without you!”1

Love might be felt in streams – at times, continuous, and yet, in spaced flashes once memory is called to speak.2 Around 1986, Christos (Nikos Kouris) moves from Greece to Moscow for business. Anthi (Elena Topalidou) stays in Greece with their two children, Costas and Irini, reaching out to her husband through letters – exchanging news, anecdotes, innermost thoughts, racking her brain over a package, planning, desiring.

In Bella (2020), a short film by Thelyia Petraki, we are invited into a world founded on both the aesthetics of an epistolary exchange between the married couple and a reenactment set against transitional sociopolitical states, precarious working conditions, protests, love, desire and ephemerality. 

Having studied film, visual, and material culture, Thelyia Petraki’s instinctive approach to filmmaking allows for experimentation around the moving image, untrammelled by academic norms or overarching notions. Nevertheless, one could suggest a reenactment of the letters’ emotional subtleties, which can be detected in the reconstructed imagery as well as in the creative (re)writing of the script. 

The textual basis of Bella is indeed restructured by means of an anthropology of images, an anthropology of streams. It is crucial to underline the honest depiction of the period (the 1980s), facilitated by the interrelation of voice-over and iconography (home videos, news archives, still images, video clips and music of the time). Viewers are riveted by an altogether pervading familiarity – one that is validated through repeated screenings of the film.

Some phrases remain with the viewer long after watching the film3:

As you can imagine, my life here is full of problems. 

But I try to be calm and smile. 

To be cool and civilized. 

Some books, coffee and a cassette.       

Chaos!

Belonging to the generation of the Athens Polytechnic University uprising, Anthi retains a belief in a revolutionary idea – one could perhaps suggest the revolutionary idea of love and care – and to the emancipatory potential of that idea. 

I liked what you wrote about the equal opposite, the unity you feel we are. I liked it, because it made me realize that you might be thinking about me and all the things we share in life.4

In thinking of the ‘equal opposite,’ ‘the unity […] we are’, Anthi appears to contest the ushering in of individualism, and what was posited as the inevitability of compromising, the lack of alternatives. It is compelling to note that Nabokov, in his autobiography Speak, Memory, also commences by underlying the ‘communal.’5 Perhaps, though, the communal does not work well with the singular; perhaps a second-person plural would have better prepared you all to bear the load of love – as Nabokov’s mother did with “intense tenderness”.6 However, Anthi addresses her husband, and through him us, in a familiar singular tone. It might be this uncanny way of addressing one, then, that allows Anthi to transform her pain of longing into love and combat the sociopolitical turmoil with humour and a certain kind of hope. 

All the while, Anthi struggles against the chaotic streams of everyday life, sometimes against the feeling of time fading away before her eyes. Even though the latter suggests some kind of nostalgia, Anthi is only contemplating emotions and moments indelibly set in time and space. Other times she cuddles up in the bathtub, cigarette burning by her side, and, placing a towel on her face, she unwinds – a moment that might remind us of Marguerite Duras’ question to Lolo Pigalle in an episode of Dim Dam Dom: ‘Is nudity a uniform?’.7 Similarly, one might wonder if nudity allows the body to be freed of any imposed role, to let go of certain memories, painful or otherwise. What Anthi cherishes, though, are the streams of memory and love, the way those determine the future, the very thought of meeting her husband soon: A couple of times I thought I saw you on the street. It was not you, of course.8

It becomes clear since viewers are primarily immersed in Anthi’s point of view – only some sequences from Christos’ life in Moscow appear – that the exploration of female subjectivity at large can be seen as relational.9 That is to say, proximity, kinship, and desire are examined in the context of a city. Here, the fixed space that a reenactment usually presupposes may lose its concreteness, since the city can be more than Athens or Moscow. In retaining its positioning in time, the city could be any city in the ’80s. In this setting, background, sound and recreated iconography are processed in a way that implies personal and, by extension, political ambivalence. It is thus crucial to underscore the relational way the character develops: Anthi moves from private to public spaces, from family to workspace, from interpersonal tensions, desires, and memories of unforgettable meetings to collective claims for infrastructural changes and an emotional live guitar performance of “Bella Ciao” in a subway station.10

And yet, one of the most intriguing elements of Bella is its sense of opening up the way memory flows, as if contemplating through images that which can only be partly uttered in words. There is one scene in particular – when Anthi meets Christos in a hotel room – where the definition of streams as vivid, reenacted memory is succinctly depicted in reverse motion. It brings to mind The Star Eaters (2003), in which experimental filmmaker Peggy Ahwesh concatenates a series of at times alienating, voyeuristic shots, challenging the power of the (male) gaze, whilst employing a reverse technique to speak about women and gambling.11 Perhaps, then, Bella can also be watched in reverse, with all the subtleties revealed but one – the constantly changing nature of love, since…

“What is left for us to talk of

But love.”12


Yiannis Andronikidis is an art historian, translator, and writer currently based in Greece. Having studied History, Archaeology, Modern and Contemporary Art, he specialized in lens-based practices at the Edinburgh College of Art. For the past years, he has been writing and translating pieces on cinema and literature for Beater.gr, Another Screen (Another Gaze), and Philosophy World Democracy, among others.

Notes

1. As seen in “Letter to Kollontai,” in Red Love: A Reader on Alexandra Kollontai (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2020), 9.

2. Vladimir Nabokov describes “the awakening of consciousness as a series of spaced flashes, with the intervals between them gradually diminishing until bright blocks of perception are formed, affording memory a slippery hold.” See Vladimir Nabokov, Speak Memory: An Autobiography Revisited (New York: G.P. Putnam, 1989), 21. [Emphasis added.]

3. Lines from Bella.

4. Ibid.

5. See Nabokov, Speak Memory, 19. In specific, “common sense tells us that our existence […]”. [Emphasis added.] 

6. Ibid., 28.

7. The episode Marguerite Duras and Stripper Lolo Pigalle (Broadcast: October 28, 1965) can be found as part of Another Screen’s programme ‘Marguerite Duras on Television’ and is available until June 9, 2021. See https://el.another-screen.com/marguerite-duras-on-television

8. Lines from Bella.

9. See Interview with Thelyia Petraki for Beater.gr, https://beater.gr/thelyia-petraki-bella-interview/

10. Ibid.

11. I am referring to the reverse scene in Ahwesh’s The Star Eaters, where one of her main characters is seen walking backwards in a casino. See “PEGGY AHWESH, HEART_LAND,” JOAN Los Angeles, accessed May 12, 2021, https://joanlosangeles.org/peggy-ahwesh/

12. Georgia Sagri, Stage of Recovery (Brussels, Belgium: Divided Publishing Ltd, 2021), 122.

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