“Where are you from? I am from a place I will never see again”
Before the Greek Weird Wave of cinematographers took international audiences by storm in 2009, Pantelis Voulgaris’ Brides (Greek: Nyfes, 2004) was an ambitious, large-scale project dealing with a rather overseen parameter of the early 20th century picture-brides’ phenomenon.
With Martin Scorsese as an executive producer, and the incredible photography of Yorgos Arganitis, Voulgaris created an emotional film deciphering human behaviour, cultural norms and doomed love under the pressures of society, immigration and poverty.
Set right before the catastrophe of Smyrna (Izmir) in 1922, 700 women from the Balkan countries board the SS King Alexander setting sail for New York where their future husbands await them, even though they have only seen their faces on a photograph. Among them, Greek seamstress Niki (Victoria Haralabidou) from the island of Samothrace is sent to take her sister’s place as the wife of a Greek immigrant in Chicago. During the voyage, however, she falls in love with American photographer Norman Harris (Damian Lewis), and also uncovers the schemes of Karabulat (Steven Berkoff) in an attempt to protect the Russian brides. Niki finds herself torn between love and family duty, while the fortunes of the other women come and go in waves of relief and despair.
Based on the script of Ioanna Karystiani, and with the atmospheric music of Stamatis Spanoudakis, the film boasts being the most expensive Greek production as of yet. This romantic drama, with its delicate colours, briefest of touches, and unspoken words between the protagonists, creates a moving love story perfectly executed by lovestruck Lewis and stoic Haralabidou. Berkoff is also convincing as a man of no moral restraints, ready to exploit anyone’s pain with a high dose of sarcasm, while the captain of the ship (Dimitris Katalifos) is a tragic figure aware of his powerlessness.
The background stories of the supporting picture brides are also approached, but in a rather fragmentary way. This is perhaps where the montage fails to deliver a highly engaging plot and storyline, since the peripheral characters are not fully developed and the sequence of events seems scattered. Thus, the film misses its chance to delve into the core of this lesser-known slave market of the 20th century, and casting a light on the unfortunate events that pushed these women to become mail order brides.