Zift, Bulgaria’s official submission to the 2009 Academy Awards Foreign Language Film category, is finally set for UK DVD release, on 20th February.
official submission to the 2009 Academy Awards Foreign Language Film category,
is finally set for UK DVD release, on 20th February. You can be
forgiven for missing it the first time around, but it is a film worth hunting
down, combining stunning black and white cinematography, great acting
performances and a plot line that would leave even Kafka’s head spinning.
Zift, we are told, has a number of meanings. Its origins are
Arabic, where it refers to the resin used to make roads. It is also the name of
a chewing gun of the same material that was popular in Communist Bulgaria (and
looks as disgusting as it sounds). It has a different connotation in urban
slang, where it means shit, and indeed it is in the bowels of humanity where
the film’s protagonist Moth (Zahari
Baharov) is forced to navigate.
We meet Moth on the day of his release from prison after
serving the best part of a 20 year murder sentence for a crime he didn’t
commit. Moth thinks he has a plan. On leaving prison he is going to find his
former lover Mantis (Tanya Illieva)
and escape with her to the tropics. Things don’t go quite to plan, and Moth is
forced to learn that the past he thought he could leave behind stubbornly
clings on to him.
Through a series of flashbacks, we learn that Moth and Mantis
were young lovers in pre-Communist Sofia. Mantis, however, got pregnant, and in
their efforts to survive, they fell in with a neighbour known as Slug (Vladimir Penev), who sets them up with
odd jobs. In a bid to make some easy money, they decide to rob a large black
diamond from a jeweller that Mantis is working for. The robbery is botched, the
jeweller is shot by Slug, Moth is injured and captured, while Slug and Mantis
escape. The diamond, however, disappears.
It is this past which returns to haunt Moth on the day he
leaves prison. He is quickly picked up by Slug’s thugs and taken to a dingy
basement. Slug has become an official in the ruling Communist Party and has
built up considerable power. He thinks that Moth has the diamond and tortures
him in an effort to find out where it is. Moth manages to escape, but not
before he drinks iridium-poisoned wine, and this sets the scene for his
poison-induced ramblings across Sofia. We encounter crazed doctors, reminiscing
bar flies, and philosophical grave diggers, all of whom have a story to tell,
and Moth moves through a city he no longer knows in a manic attempt to put off
death long enough to find Mantis, recover the diamond and escape with her
forever. Just, however, as the city he grew up in has become a disposal site
for the detritus of human life, so too, is he forced to understand the changing
loyalties of his long lost love.
This neo-noir thriller is director Javor Gadev’s debut and marks him out as a director to watch. It is
briskly-paced and shot in a non-linear manner, which seems to gel well with
Moth’s unsettled state of mind. There is slightly disturbing anti-woman element
of it: Moth’s former prison-cell mate and friend Van Wurst the Eye (Mihail Mutafov) warns him that women
will cause nothing but suffering, and is proved correct by Mantis, who, like
her namesake insect, does indeed devour her mate. Women, in Zift, are
essentially immoral sexual creatures, but in fairness to Gadev, the men – with
the exception of Moth – don’t come off much better. Through ironic and at times
surreal humour, social commentary on the nature of totalitarian regimes, and a
picture of urban modernity that is at times beautiful, at times nightmarish,
Zift is a stylish exploration of the misfortune of human life.