The thing that makes the cinema of small nations good festival fare is, I believe, the chance to learn something new about a place in the world that doesn’t get as much focus as others in cinema. However, when such movies manage to provide the audience with an accessible and universal subject matter as well, they can be eye opening and truly successful. Such is the case with the Bulgarian feature Glory, part of the official selection of the 31st Leeds International Film Festival.
Glory is the second film in an anthological trilogy by the duo Petar Vulchanov and Kristina Grozeva, who have set themselves the task of picking sensational Bulgarian newspaper headlines (usually related to an average person in exceptional circumstances) and constructing a film story around them. Their debut The Lesson (2014), the story of a teacher who attempts a bank robbery, became the most awarded Bulgarian film around the globe ever after its release. Among others, the film won grand prizes at the San Sebastian and Tokyo Film Festivals. The thing that made the picture so successful was its uncompromising approach to realism as well as the humanity of its story.
With Glory, Grozeva and Vulchanov attempt a similar approach, as they explore the tale of a down-on-his-luck railway linesman named Tsanko who, whilst doing his job, discovers a million in cash on the rail tracks. He alerts the police and due to his diligence and honesty, the Ministry of Transport decides to award him with a watch, but upon putting it on his wrist they misplace his old watch.
However, the old watch is something Tsanko values a lot, as it is a memory from his father. From then on the film focuses on the absurdist (yet painfully realistic) situation of the small man trying to get back what belongs to him from a corrupt and irresponsible institution. The fact that Tsanko has a stammer further heightens the motif of the lack of understanding and desire to listen on behalf of the powers that be.
The film makes great use of quirky story elements without ever crossing the line into a Kafkaesque or farcical story. In fact, the character of Tsanko is uncompromisingly realistic. He is the average man who works for a state-run enterprise for a degradingly low salary. The corruption within the ministry is a common trope in Grozeva and Vulchanov’s films. This is the major part of Glory‘s success – it nails the balance of the situation, which seems unbelievable, yet is realistic enough to reflect something Bulgarians have sadly grown to expect from their government.
I am a Bulgarian myself, but I was interested to see what UK viewers understood from the story of a man, whose reality and milieu are quite different from what they might see in their country. Upon chatting to several audience members after the screening, I gathered that this story had actually translated very well with them and that they managed to fully empathize with the main character, taking on the big oppressive institution. I believe this is the other main reason for the success of the film. The filmmakers picked a topic which is universally accessible due to the clear nature of the morals it tries to put across, instead of a complex meandering message.
I can’t help but draw a parallel between neo-realism and the work of Grozeva and Vulchanov, who were clearly inspired by the famous artistic movement. The simplicity of Glory, grounded in a naturalistic aesthetic, provides the audience with an honest, exquisitely human story. Furthermore, the film has had a prestigious tour through such festivals as the ones in Kent (Brussels), Locarno, Arras (winner of the Grand Prix) and now Leeds. This shows that marketability was something the creators considered, as well.
I strongly recommend Glory to anyone who might want to try something different and see a Bulgarian film. You will not be disappointed. Glory is one of the fine examples of how to make a powerful piece of cinema on a small budget, and in that sense, is one of the important contemporary examples of an excellent script.
Glory is screening as part of LIFF 31. For tickets visit LeedsFilmCity.com. Image source: View.co.uk