Warden of the Dead

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Palm Springs International Film Festival

Camera Ltd.

PALM SPRINGS -- The title character of "Warden of the Dead," a 13-year-old orphan, shepherds the deceased and the grieving through the sprawling, labyrinthine cemetery where he lives and works.

Despite a premise that sounds lugubrious, the film is, at its best, a bright, autumnal fable tinged with comic absurdity. Writer-director-editor Ilian Simeonov loads his increasingly unfocused narrative with too many metaphoric elements, however, straining rather than enriching his story. If it doesn't coalesce, Bulgaria's foreign-language Oscar submission is nonetheless atmospheric and engaging for much of its running time.

Known only as the Kid (Vladimir Georgiev), the ragged-haired protagonist takes his job seriously, organizing crews of gravediggers, florists and dirge singers. When he's not traversing the premises with an air of authority, a pack of dogs at his heels, he sits in a modest house in a corner of the cemetery, pasting pictures of the recently buried into a little book. On the TV, a news commentator remarks on the pointlessness of an ongoing, unnamed war in the Balkans (the film's time period is unspecified).

The Kid can prophesy death, and when he says someone will die in 10 days, his elderly friend Angel (Itzhak Fintzi) prepares happily for his own longed-for demise. Having just watched the casket of his nemesis lowered into a rain-filled grave (the film's striking opening scene), Angel no longer has a reason to live. But for the dead man's daughter (Diana Dobreva), the betrayal that cost Angel his love and his freedom is not a closed chapter. She may also offer hope to cemetery employee Ivan (Samuel Fintzi, son of the actor playing Angel), a frustrated painter who idolizes Rubens.

Lensing by Dimitar Gotchev, who also produced the film, captures a vivid sense of the Kid's (the region's?) self-contained world. But "Warden" suffers from an excess of symbolic and magic-realist story strands. The secret nighttime delivery of war dead in plastic bags, for example, might have had more impact if it weren't sharing screen time with the Kid's telekinetic powers.

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