Hard Goodbyes: My Father, which is set in Greece in 1969, reminds me of several other current films, and yet, it is also unique and powerful in its own quiet way.

Like The Return, my favorite film of 2004, Hard Goodbyes is about a family in which two young boys must deal with their bitter mother and a father who’s rarely around to participate in family matters. In this case, the older son resents the father for his long absences. It’s the younger son, Elias, who idolizes him. And, like Dear Frankie and Since Otar Left, it follows characters as they struggle to cope with the absence of a family member in very different ways, including the invention of fictions to mask the pain of reality.

When a sudden turn of events ensures that Elias will be separated from his father forever, the boy is traumatized. To cope with the shock, he transforms his current obsession–the imminent moon-landing of ’69–into a fantasy where his father becomes an astronaut. He lies in the yard at night, fantasizing while staring up at the moon.

Hard Goodbyes, Penny Panayotopoulou’s directorial debut, is a very personal film, and one that is painful to endure because of the camera’s unflinching attention to the boy’s emotional turmoil. Young Elias sleeps next to a star chart, emphasizing not only his preoccupation with space, but also that this is a very small boy in a very big and mysterious cosmos, trying to find his way through a difficult and lonely journey as he comes of age.

It begins with a prayer for God the Comforter to “come and abide in us,” overlaid with flickering television images of a rocketship lifting off. This is only the beginning of the film’s spiritual implications. They glimmer thruoghout the picture, making Elias’s longing for his father an echo of our own spiritual longing for a Heavenly Father who often seems absent.

When Dad comes to visit, we can see that he’s unlikely to stay. His wife seems hard-hearted, at first, but it becomes clear that she’s resentful over being abandoned so often. She’s married to a a troubled businessman, a salesman who works out of his car, and he’s no prize. He’s short-tempered, and he leavesher to do all of the hard work around the house. She misses him, but the longing has burned so deep it has become anger, and she can’t get past that to show him love. She smokes because it’s the “only thing that keeps me company.” She keeps her boy from following his dad, probably because she doesn’t want to see her son become too much like him. She waters two small cacti in the window of their kitchen. Over the course of the film, I found her to be the most sympathetic character, bearing the burden of two boys by herself, with only occasional help from her brother.

Elias is the central character, but he might put you off, as his attachment to his father sometimes seems nearly psychotic; he seems completely unconcerned with his brother and mother. When they fight, he suffers nosebleeds, he counts obsessively, he digs himself further and further into denial.

But Dad isn’t all bad. He delights in Elias, they playfully talk as if they’re successful and headed for a future together in a glorious beach house. He reads Jules Verne to him, voyage stories that resonate with all that we suspect is about to happen. But then he sneaks out of the house in the night, as if that will spare him the pain of abandoning them.

His name, by the way, is Christos, which lends even more weight to the film’s spiritual subtext. Is this also a story of humanity’s plight as spiritual orphans? Are we meant to think of a savior who promised to return, whose absence has gone on so long that his “bride” has grown frustrated and his children broken-hearted?

I recommend you check out Hard Goodbyes: My Father when it becomes available on DVD. The performances are uniformly strong, the cinematography is simple but colorfully engaging, and the story will give you some discomforting dilemmas to discuss. It’s a rough-edged, difficult little drama… in all the right ways.

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