Written, directed and starring Christoforos Papakaliatis, one of the most popular actors and directors in Greece today, it would be tempting to reject Maestro In Blue (titled Maestro in some territories) as a series suffering from a case of “auteuritis”. Papakaliatis plays Orestis, a classically trained musician who is invited to direct a music festival in Paxos, one of those small, perpetual-spring Greek islands that overflow with tourists every season. Except he arrives right at the end of the Pandemic’s restrictions, which turned the island into its original self: An isolated small town. Orestis’ arrival will stir things up, as he starts a will they/won’t they affair with the 19-year-old daughter of the island’s wealthiest man (and his patron), as the secrets of the islands’ inhabitants are revealed, all leading up to a murder.
With that premise, it would be understandable for some of you to roll your eyes and think “not another fucking story where a self-insert middle-aged man sweeps a young girl off her feet, set in a picturesque small town full of archetypes and with a crime B-plot to make it juicier.” Except this is not a story about Orestis, nor is it just another Big City Guy in a small-town template. Because Maestro is imbued with a meta-narrative about the insecurities brought on by being the biggest fish in a very small pond, and whether it’s worth it to jump out of that safety into something bigger — if it’s even out there — and if you can reach it while flapping out of the pond.
In a clever move, Papakaliatis turns Maestro into a choral narrative, each chapter narrated by a major character, only one of them focusing on Orestis and his background. Better still, he allows the story to flow slowly, in part reflecting the languid rhythms of a place like Paxos, but also to provide breathing room for the characters and to better explain their decisions. Orestis arrives at the island as he tries to reinvent his career, having spent the boom years of Greece’s induction into the European Union as a struggling musician, then falling in love and marrying Alexandra (Stefania Goulioti), a businesswoman an heiress, selling out to the group of technocrats that tanked Greece, and then having his heart broken.
He arrives at the invitation of Fanis (Fanis Mouratidis), benefactor of the island, involved in money laundering for the Italian Mafia (chump change compared to what Greek oligarchs did), and a man who is not as modern and progressive as he thinks himself to be. His partner in crime is the local, abusive monster, Charalampos, played terrifically by Yannis Tsortekis. His marriage to Sophia (Marisha Triantafyllidou) is fraught and chilly, as she is having a deep affair with Michalis (Antinoos Albanis) island’s doctor.
Living with them is Sophia’s mother, Haris (Haris Alexiou, one of the most popular Greek singers), a kind and modern grandmother who had her heart and career broken more than 50 years ago … by a Big City Musician. Fanis and Sophia’s children have just graduated school, and they are as eager to see them spread their wings and study in Athens as they would like to keep them forever tied to the island and family home: Antonis (Orestis Chalkias), the youngest, is charming, wild, and with one foot out of the closet (he is in a relationship with Charalampos son, Spyros). Kleila (Klelia Andriolatou), one year older, shares the burden of being that person in a small town that could go places: She has the wits, she inherited her grandmother’s musical talents, but she also is the most beautiful woman in the island … or any island. And probably the Continent. And in an island community that is still traditionalist, despite being open to the world, being the most beautiful woman there carries a particular connotation. It makes the entire community, and your immediate family, revert to 19th Century mode (BC), and your beauty becomes yet another export commodity, like the touristic value of the island itself. I know this because I’ve seen it, Chilean upper-class society is not much different. So Kleila is pushed to date a good-looking but bland Medicine student from Athens by her parents, while her grandmother pushes her to escape the island. In that context, it makes a lot of sense that she would fall for the dark, handsome stranger that is 26 years her senior. It’s still the conditioning of the island, her future, how much she can develop her potential is still tied up to the kind of man she chooses.
Rounding the cast is Maria (Maria Kavoyianni), wife of Charalampos and owner of a taverna (a small restaurant), for whom Orestis arrival will become a way out of the abuse at home and to start gaining confidence, if not to divorce Charalampos, at the very least to kill him. Kavoyianni’s performance is a freaking avalanche, being at once the sweetest lady, a defeated woman, and a pissed-off lioness, a counterpoint to Alexiou’s Haris, also oppressed by patriarchy, but in a gilded cage. It cannot be a coincidence that the characters of Maria, Haris, Fanis, and Kleila share the same name with the actors portraying them.
Papakaliatis is playing an effective game of alternative realities between the actors (all pretty popular at home) and their characters, a what if? that might not apply to the actors in particular, but would apply to other Greek people of their same generations, Alexiou in particular, but also for Andriolatou: What happens now to Greek Gen-Zers, after the 2010s crisis pretty much obliterated the hopes and dreams of Greek Millennials. Paxios, as a village, does have the advantage of its beauty. Tourists will always come back, but even without them, who wouldn’t want to live in a place like that, even considering all the darkness it has kept repressed? Orestis seems as attracted to his position on the island, as the lightbearer of sophistication and culture, as he is to Kleila. Fanis is content on crowning his position as king of the island by, well, running for mayor. Sophia cannot make up her mind about staying in the comforts of her home island or leaving it all to the doctor. Haris has to walk a tightrope between her resignation to having squandered her potential while she pressures her grandchildren to run away. Charalampos is a man terrified of having to change anything about himself, so he passes on the trauma. Antonis and Spyros might as well have no chance but to leave the island. The thing that people forget about ponds is that they can be a safe place for most fish living there. The bigger fishes might not even be predators, you can be assured that you will have a less stressful life and there is a high chance you might pass on your genes. It is the big fish that suffers from a structural problem in the pond.
There’s an argument to be made that Papakaliatis, in being one of the most popular actors and directors in Greece today, and with Maestro “opening” Greece to Netflix distribution, is also making a story about his own role as a big fish in a relatively smaller pond like the Greek Film and TV industry. The character of Orestis reflects this forever out-of-place condition: Too insignificant and commercially unviable in Athens, not good enough for the stability of Academia, just the right size for Paxos, but for a limited time only, and you should stick to the local … customs.
As you might expect, being a series about a musician in Greece, starring one of Greece’s most popular singers, the soundtrack is outstanding. The selection of English-language needle drops is a bit obvious, but this is a problem that affects every single major European or Latin American production when selecting Anglo music. You need to give it a bit of time for the elements to coalesce, but around the mid-chapter all the pieces fall together. A second season has been confirmed.
Out-of-context spoilers in the video below, only usable trailer I could find.