If you thought that the infamous gold watch in Pulp Fiction caused a few problems, you should see what happens with the one in Glory (Slava), a sharply executed, superbly performed Bulgarian tragic dramedy where the lives of a cosmopolitan PR woman and lonely railroad worker come together in some highly unfortunate ways.
The second feature from writer-director duo Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov — whose 2014 debut, The Lesson, wracked up plenty of prizes on the festival circuit — this equally riveting exploration of human foibles and socio-economic injustice made its premiere at the Locarno Film Festival, followed by stints at Busan, Tokyo, Antalya and the Hamptons (where it scooped up the top prize). Already picked up by Film Movement for U.S. release, it should find additional bookings with niche distributors in Europe and elsewhere.
If the Dardenne brothers tried their hands at comedy, or more like pitch-black comedy, they would perhaps wind up with the scenario that Grozeva and Valchanov (working with co-writer Decho Taralzehkov) have cooked up here: In rural Bulgaria, the stuttering recluse Tsanko (Denolyubov) works as a railway lineman, spending his days tightening the bolts of his nation’s deteriorating system of train tracks. One morning while making the rounds he stumbles across a jackpot of cash, which he proceeds to return to the authorities without pocketing more than a few bucks.
Meanwhile back in Sofia, Julia (Gosheva) is a 40-year-old workhorse who runs the communications department of Bulgaria’s corrupted Ministry of Transports. With a major scandal to deal with, not to mention an ongoing effort to conceive a child with her extraordinarily patient husband (Kitodar Todorov), she seizes upon Tsanko’s heroic gesture as a way to whitewash her ministry’s misconduct, inviting the worker to the capital to accept a token award and smile in front of the flashing cameras.
But Julia’s plan gravely misfires when the award in question turns out to be a brand-new digital watch, thus forcing Tsanko to temporarily remove the Russian “Slava” (or “Glory”) watch that was given to him by his deceased father. That one mistake winds up affecting both of their lives in ways that at first can seem slightly amusing, as if we’re watching a Bulgarian workplace farce, until they turn harrowingly dark during a final reel that dishes out several twists and surprises, not all of them pleasant ones.
Directed with wit and structural precision — there is not a single moment in the film that feels wasted or doesn’t pay off later on — Glory uses two vastly opposing characters (a communications specialist vs. someone who can barely communicate at all) to depict a society riddled with fraud and cruelty, the latter best exemplified in a scene where Julia’s PR team can’t stop poking fun at Tsanko’s stutter. Everyone — except perhaps Tsanko, who acts as a sort of a holy fool — is out to save his or her own skin, including an investigative journalist (Milko Lazarov) who seems to have righteous intentions until we soon learn otherwise.
Gosheva and Denolyubov both starred in The Lesson, and they are again impressive this time as two people with conflicting needs and statures who will stop at nothing to get what they want. In a sense, Julia and Tsanko represent separate sides of a greater problem that has more to do with the place they live in than with who they are, coping as they can in a dog-eat-dog world they can do little to change. It’s every man or woman for himself, and there are moments in Glory that recall Jean Renoir’s famous line of dialogue from The Rules of the Game about how “everyone has their reasons,” except that here the reason slowly but surely turns to madness.
Venue: Antalya Film Festival
Production companies: Abraxas Film, Graal Films, Screening Emotions, APoria Filmworks, Red Carpet
Cast: Stefan Denolyubov, Margita Gosheva, Kitodar Todorov, Milko Lazarov, Georgi Stamenov
Directors-producers: Kristina Grozeva, Petar Valchanov
Screenwriters: Kristina Grozeva, Petar Valchanov, Decho Taralezhkov
Director of photography: Krum Rodriguez
Editor: Petar Valchanov
Composer: Hristo Namliev