Film Noir and Socialist Realism both share a kind of economic determinism, in which financial need often leads to tragedy. Director Javor Gardev strikingly blends both genres, employing the severe Brutalist architecture of Sofia and the Kafkaesque mechanisms of Communism, to create a uniquely Bulgarian film noir. The resulting twilight world is a nightmare for an ex-con dubbed “The Moth,” in Gardev’s Zift (trailer here), which screens Thursday at the SXSW Film Festival (in Austin, TX) and will be available on IFC’s Festival Direct, now through June 11th.
Before the Communist coup of 1944, The Moth had a beautiful girlfriend, Ada played by Bulgarian supermodel Tanya Ilieva, but not enough money to get married and live happily ever after. To raise such funds, they turn to the local gangster simply known as Slug. However, when their plan to rob a local jeweler goes awry, The Moth is sent up the river on an unjust murder rap. Feigning an ardent conversion to socialism, he eventually secures parole sometime in the 1960’s, only to find the thugs who once operated in the underworld are now the thugs running the local party—and they want to have words.
In Vladislav Todorov’s subversive script, based on his novel, the underworld now has the force of the state at its disposal. With the Red Star literally towering over the town square, Gardev’s crime story takes on surreal dimensions thanks to its Orwellian political environment. Yet, morality persists in this world, preserved by the Church’s Father Todor, played with heavy authority by Djoko Rossich, in a scene which packs the film’s greatest emotionally punch.
Burrowing liberally from classic film noirs, like D.O.A., Brute Force, and Double Indemnity, Zift has all the elements, including an attractive and very fatal femme fatale: Ada, also called “The Mantis,” a species whose females kill their males when mating. However, Emil Christov’s highly stylized black & white cinematography is the true star of the film. There is an austere beauty to his visuals, with nearly every still of the film suitable for framing.
Style sometimes seems to take precedence over character in Zift, but it is indeed quite impressive, conveying a cold, oppressive world of imposing edifices and unchecked state corruption. Its fatalistic anti-hero, Moth (a species often drawn to flame) is also a cold figure, difficult to embrace or take a rooting interest in. He is surrounded by some very human supporting characters though, who sometimes have their own stories to tell, that serve as clever commentaries on the tragedy unfolding on-screen.
Impressively crafted, Zift was Bulgaria’s official submission for consideration as the 2008 Academy Awards’ best foreign language film. A unique viewing experience, it combines grim naturalism and visual poetry to evoke Bulgaria’s repressive Communist past. It has a late-night screening this Thursday (3/19) at SXSW and is currently available through IFC’s Festival Direct on most major cable providers (including Time Warner and Cablevision).