No Answers Only Questions
This week, World On Film returns to Bulgaria for the somewhat overambitious commentary on the human condition in Eastern Plays. Ironically, I found myself enjoying the film more when writing the review than when actually watching it.
(2009) Written & Directed by Kamen Kalev
You can find a trailer at the bottom of the previous entry.
“Many people start [are starting] to wake up and realize that their soul is sick.”
The long, twilight struggle of existence in a violent, directionless world is the premise of Eastern Plays, a Bulgarian film that comments as much about that country’s society as it does about society in general. The story is told from the perspective of two brothers, Christo and Georgi, one in his thirties and recovering from drug addiction, the other young and impressionable, yet both staring into the abyss with only impenetrable darkness staring back. By turns, they fight and fall into meltdown as the chaotic world around them offers little meaning to guide them toward happiness and purpose. The premise of Kalev’s tale is certainly sound, however in practice, I found the delivery fairly disjointed and listless. It is peppered with touching and thought-provoking studies of human frailty, but ultimately does not really pull together as an entertaining whole.
One of the principal difficulties I had with Eastern Plays is its lethargic beginning, and a fairly rudderless one at that. A raft of characters is introduced; all pursuing their own paths to destruction, but there is no real clue as to either whom the story will principally focus upon, or what that story really is. Possibilities include a young man’s descent into gang violence, nationalism and politically-supported anti-immigration riots, family breakdown, and the generation gap. Then there is Christo, an unpleasant, self-loathing, chain-smoking artist, staring oblivion in the eye and desperate to pull himself away from it yet lost as to how. Ultimately, it becomes clear that Eastern Plays is his story, and as he battles his inner demons, the many layers of his character come to the fore and a more sensitive, highly-pensive character is revealed.
One could certainly argue that there is no reason why a film couldn’t contain all the above elements with multiple character arcs lightly intertwined with each other and the sum of the parts being a comment on some aspect of the human condition. In this, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the Bolivian film, Sexual Dependency, reviewed here a couple of weeks ago. However, whereas Sexual Dependency triumphs because all the parts slot into place within the greater commentary, Eastern Plays, attempting to do the same, fails because the result is hazy and the various sequences somehow more drawn out and dull in the process.
In hindsight, it seems far clearer that Kalev’s approach to the first half of the film was to fill the canvas with the wider problems of society so that the viewer will see Christo’s pain as a microcosm of that shared by the nation as a whole. Seemingly germane, there is however pain as a microcosm of that shared by the nation as a whole. Unfortunately, there is perhaps too much of this, thereby causing narrative incoherence: is the film about him or is it about Bulgaria? It is in the second half, when Christo’s story becomes the dominant narrative that things begin to pick up. Love interests and family become soundboards for attempts to make sense of everything, and these prove to be the more interesting sections of the film. It is the character interactions themselves rather than merely the occasional philosophical debate that shows humanity finding understanding and balance that are especially touching, although those brief philosophical debates do sum up the themes quite nicely.
“[Eastern Plays looks at] the long, twilight struggle of existence in a violent, directionless world.”
There is much to recommend on the acting front. Ovanes Torosian as gang member-wannabe Georgi does a very good job of portraying the confused adolescent whose inner turmoil is more evident in his eyes and quietude than his dialogue. Highly memorable also is the lovely Saadet Aksoy, a young and intelligent woman able to bridge the gaps between worlds despite fear and who is able to put voice to the social discord. The scenes between her and Christov are among the most engaging of all in Eastern Plays, save for some other touching moments where Christo puts voice to his fear and aspirations, and a scene near the end where he encounters an old man filled with the tranquility of understanding that Christo so desperately yearns for. The late Christo Christov is eminently believable as his namesake: bored of social expectation, longing for something more, and frustrated when it fails to materialize. He is pitiless to those unable to help him in his quest, and eminently warm and human to those seemingly able to provide it. It’s a great shame that Eastern Plays is both Christov’s debut and finale to the acting world, and an even greater shame that the film’s narrative disarray somewhat undermines his performance.
The character of Bulgaria itself, as depicted, is cold, lifeless and bleak. It is violently insecure as it struggles to define its own national identity, its citizens borne of both the Soviet nation it once was and the unsure republic it is today. The elderly cling to the orderly past, the young embrace the chaotic present, yet neither are happy. A line from Georgi, however, implies that the changes are for the better, implying that the Bulgaria of today is perhaps simply experiencing the birth pains of a new nation, though a generation will be lost to the uncertainty of transition as a result.
All of which brings us full circle: there are plenty of great and interesting themes explored in Eastern Plays, with the actors more than able to realise them within their believable and fragile characters. The lack of a tighter, more focused narrative, which dulls the pacing and fogs up the intent of the piece, is the biggest culprit. That Kalev is passionate about the subjects presented is very much in evidence, as is the fact that when it comes down to really exploring them through his characters, he is quite skilled at doing so. Here though, he tries to say too much at once, enshrouding the result in fog as a result. When he masters clarity and restraint, however, there is much to suggest his work will be something memorable indeed.
The conflict between generation and culture continues in Burkina Faso as one woman dares to say no to the common practice of genital mutilation. The colourful and thought-provoking window into West African traditions in Moolaadé, when World On Film returns. Click below to view a trailer: