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‘Astoria’ depicts Greek immigrant life

Filmmaker Nick Efteriades has been living in Astoria for the past four years.

But when he began writing a script for the movie that eventually became Astoria, an independent feature he directed that opens Friday in Manhattan, he had never so much as set foot inside the neighborhood dotted with Greek coffee shops and social clubs.

“I had heard of Astoria being like the little Athens of America, but I had never seen it,” Efteriades said late Monday night in a phone interview from his 35th Street home.

Efteriades is the first to admit he is not a native of the neighborhood he captured with such loving detail on celluloid, a surprising fact he acknowledges in a tone that is as apologetic as it is eager. But his vision of Astoria takes local street corners and hangouts and uses them as a backdrop for a story that is universal, depicting immigrants who seek the American brand of success, and the defiance of one who believes there is a better way.

“Whether you’re a Greek from Utah or a Greek from Oregon, Astoria really defines that American dream of coming to America for most Greeks,” Efteriades said. “Astoria to me defines that idea of a multicultural America. It defines that blue-collar working-class ethic.”

Efteriades first encountered Astoria when a friend brought him to lunch at a Greek restaurant in the mid 1990s. Upon stepping off the N train, an idea that had long been germinating for a film about a Greek American family finally found a place to put down roots and grow.

“I was just completely taken aback by hearing Greek on the streets and seeing Greek stores,” said Efteriades, who was then a graduate film student at Columbia University. “I said, ‘Wow, what unique character this neighborhood has.’ There and then I went home and I said, “I’m setting this film in Astoria. It just seems appropriate.’”

By his third visit, which eventually turned into something of a weekend ritual, he decided to name the movie for the neighborhood—Astoria.

“I just love the cadence of the word, too,” he said. “I think it just has a beautiful ring to it. It has an openness to it.”

It has been about eight years since his first visit to Astoria, and Efteriades, the Boston-born son of Greek immigrants, now calls the Greek neighborhood his home. He moved here in 1998 because his Manhattan roommate was getting married, but the change of scene put him in perfect position for the film’s five-week shooting schedule.

“It was a great thing to be able to roll out of bed and walk to the set,” he said. “It was like I’m living in my own back lot.”

Since then the film has garnered an array of awards on its roll through the film festival circuit. Its New York City run will begin at Village East Cinemas, although Efteriades hopes it will eventually appear in Astoria.

Efteriades had originally shopped the script around to production companies where it sat for years in “development hell,” until he finally got fed up with the process and bought back the rights, producing the film independently with the support of backers—many of them Greeks from Queens.

Astoria is a coming-of-age story for Alex (Rick Stear), a 28-year-old who works in his father’s sandwich shop but dreams of voyaging to Greece and finding the tomb of Alexander the Great, “the guy that conquered the whole known world at 30,” he tells his friend.

He hardly seems to fit in to a place where property and material possessions are considered king. His father is tied to gambling debts incurred by playing cards in a Greek social club, and his best friend hatches a seemingly endless series of strategies to earn a quick buck at Off Track Betting.

Fiercely proud of his neighborhood yet adamant about leaving it, Alex finds his only kindred spirit in Elena (Paige Turco), a Byzantine scholar who arrives from Greece to restore an icon at St. Irene’s Church.

He is “a young kid who’s not looking for the next buck,” Efteriades said. “He’s living in a world of ideas and living in a world of exploration.”

The film plays out on a backdrop of familiar sites in Astoria, from the sanctuary at St. Irene’s on 23rd Avenue to the clattering N train along 31st Street and the Greek sculptures of Athens Square Park.

The neighborhood’s support was imperative to the success of the movie, which relied on the kindness of residents allowing the crew to film in their houses and in their stores. The sandwich shop owned by Alex’s father, called Demos in the movie, is a social club and restaurant on 23rd Avenue and 25th Street, which was completely redesigned for the film. The family home in the film was actually a Greek-owned house in Woodside.

“This is a movie made in part by the community,” Efteriades said.

In the final days before the film’s opening, Efteriades and his producers were pushing to spread the word in a grass roots publicity campaign, which he hopes will no longer be necessary once people begin watching the film and word of mouth takes over.

“It’s important to me that everyone in western Queens and in Queens knows about this film,” Efteriades said. “Now I call Queens home.”

For more information, visit www.astoriathemovie.com. Tickets may be purchased by calling 212-777-FILM and pressing #922.

Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 154.

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