Bulgaria, 2008, 91 minutes
Director: Javor Gardev
Take a classic genre, one traditionally linked to American pulp novels, like film noir. It's a genre that's often closely associated to its 30's-to-50's period, given the hard-edged characters that permeate through them, but what if you transplant it into another country, in the same period? While it needs the familiar symptoms to be diagnosed as noir, and Zift indeed keeps those symptoms, the side effects clearly differ. Most importantly, perhaps, the political landscape.
I'll admit that my knowledge of Bulgaria isn't up to snuff, but indeed the film piqued my interest, which led me to do some light reading on Bulgarian history—I love that about film.
Our hero Moth (Zachari Baharov) was imprisoned on false murder charges during an attempted robbery right before the big Bulgarian coup d'etat in 1944. After being a model Communist in prison, he is released early to a strange new world of socialist Bulgaria. Here's where it gets interesting, as the socialist facade topples to make way for capitalist greed. The real killer, Slug (Vladimir Penev), is now an important member of the Communist Party, using his influence to capture and torture Moth into giving up the location of a precious diamond they tried to steal years ago, which acts as the film’s MacGuffin.
A more important object given weight in the film, however, is a black ball Moth is always gnawing called a zift, apparently a common chewing gum for Bulgaria's poor. The name refers to an asphalt-like substance used to build the city, but it’s also a slang term for shit. It’s this little snack that gives the film its political center, revealing the true nature of the monuments that represent the era’s socialist hypocrisy, where the great of the elite is built on the backs of the poor. This type of world is perfect for film noir. Moth agrees by referring to Voltaire’s satiric novella Candide several times (undoubtedly somewhat of an inspiration for the film), especially the passage about the “vulgarian Bulgarians.” Moth fights to make his own destiny but is weighed down by his past, which I guess makes him an embodiment of the democracy to come, but things are not always so optimistic.
Shot in striking black-and-white and structured in a dynamic nonlinear narrative that takes us through two distinctly different periods, Zift was Bulgaria’s official selection for this year’s Oscars. Borrowing the great plot device from the classic film noir D.O.A. (or that Crank thing, for you philistines), a poisoned Moth dashes through the capital city of Sofia, looking for his old girlfriend Ada (Tanya Ilieva), nicknamed Mantis, now also linked to Party members. He bumps into bizarre characters right out of a Coen Bros movie, which adds to the film’s already darkly comic tone, while ruminating—in classic noir voiceover—about the philosophical teachings of his one-eyed once-cellmate Van Wurst, whose glass eye Moth keeps as memento. This, of course, includes the dangers of women’s role in bringing down the best of men, an idea nowhere better placed than in film noir. Slowly but surely, Ada reveales herself to be the classic femme fatale, peaking at a gleefully bold scene where Moth and Ada’s vigorous lovemaking is intercut with footage of a female praying mantis feasting on its mate’s head. A cliched assertion made fresh by sheer style, which is also a good way to describe Zift.