Monday, August 10, 2009

Zift Happens

Melbourne International Film Festival 2009

Zift is film noir set in post-war Bulgaria. Its black and white format works for this historical piece, creating a very appropriate mood. It is gloomy and seedy. It also moderates the ample blood associated with the inevitable violence. The magnificent settings reflect both the pre-war architectural grandeur of Sofia and the grey totalitarianism of the communist state.

The film has many of the classic noir stock features. Following release from prison in the 1960s, the protagonist Moth (Zahary Baharov) narrates his story taking us back to 1944. The mystery revolves around a diamond missing from the original crime scene. The femme fatale Ada or Mantis (Tanya Ilieva) is his school sweetheart. There is lots of suspense and a protracted chase. We meet a range of oddball characters during his one-night fight for life.

Betrayal is an essential part of this genus. The “villain” is his old partner in crime Slug (Vladimir Penev), now a powerful apparatchik who has thrived under the brutal, repressive Stalinist regime. Moth knows that he should trust no one.

This is an entertaining and at times troubling look at what people will do to survive. In keeping with the genre, it has an underlying layer of misogynism. There is little challenge to the view of women as men destroyers. The praying mantis metaphor is indulged both verbally and visually.

Both Baharov and Ilieva have very strong screen presences. He’s a man’s man, muscular and square-jawed. She’s lean and lithe with enticing eyes. The pair ooze sensuality, especially when working off each other.

According to Moth, “zift” means "bitumen" and was used as chewing gum. It’s also slang for “shit”. Very fitting for this dark movie. However, it’s tempered with some humour. Moth’s scrambles through the women’s section of a large bathhouse. He dives into a pool to retrieve a false eye that belonged to Grater (Tzvetan Alexiev) a prison friend. It’s worth seeing just for the gallery of tattoos. There is a sample in the trailer.

Director Javor Gardev and novelist/screenwriter Vladislav Todorov have crafted a tight script within an ample 92 minutes. Lots of other filmmakers could follow this example of brevity.Zift is definitely worth a look.

(The sub-titles on the copy shown at MIFF were less than satisfactory at times, which is very disappointing given its release was nearly a year ago.)

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