A timely thriller that has grown ever more depressingly newsworthy since it began picking up film festival prizes last year, Bulgaria’s contender for the best foreign-language film Oscar finds some ironic parallels between Europe’s current refugee influx and the strictly controlled borders of the old Eastern Bloc nations. Director Stephan Komandarev’s 2008 film, The World is Big and Salvation Lurks Around the Corner, became the first Bulgarian feature ever to make the Academy Awards shortlist. His latest has not been so lucky, failing to appear among the nine finalists announced last week. But The Judgment will continue to resonate, thanks to its topical theme and solid production values, with potential to translate positive festival buzz into niche distribution.
A co-production between Bulgaria, Germany, Croatia and Macedonia, The Judgment takes place in the soaring Rhodope mountain range that divides southeast Bulgaria from Greece. Eye-catching panoramic views of these mist-cloaked peaks bookend the film, and they also loom large in the plot, as this remote corner of the Balkans is one of the porous border regions where thousands of migrants, mostly fleeing Africa and the Middle East, make their illegal crossings into Europe. Komandarev has shot documentaries in the area on the same theme, drawing heavily on real people and real events for this fictionalized treatment.
Assen Blatechki exudes wounded, quiet desperation as the chief protagonist, Mityo Petrov, a widowed truck driver who has recently been laid off his job delivering milk. With deep debts and his house facing imminent repossession, Mityo grudgingly agrees to take on a shady work offer from his former army commander, The Captain (Predrag Manojlovic), an old-school enforcer still nostalgic for the pride and patriotism of the Communist era. The job involves smuggling refugees into Bulgaria via the deserted border guard station where Mityo did his military service 30 years ago — a traumatic period when he was forced to commit state-sanctioned crimes he would rather forget.
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Smuggled over the frontier under cover of night and fog, the refugees pass a steep mountain precipice nicknamed The Judgment, a site for executing criminals and dissidents since Roman times. Once inside Bulgaria, Mityo hides them inside his empty milk tanker for the first leg of their journey into Europe. But the scheme starts to fall apart when The Captain begins treating the refugees with treacherous, booze-fueled, racist contempt. He also drags up painful secrets from Mityo’s past that exacerbate his love-hate relationship with his emotionally volatile teenage son, Vasko (a plausibly prickly performance by the gaunt, razor-cheekboned, Armenian-born Ovanes Torosian).
Komandarev and his cinematographer Krasimir Andonov shoot in a crisp and concise style, balancing hand-held close-ups with more classically composed landscape shots. The first act is full of slow-burn suspense and ominous undertones, but the latter half leans a little too heavily on melodrama and caricature, most notably The Captain’s shift from cool-headed puppetmaster to inhuman monster. By making the father-son conflict between Mityo and Vasko the heart of the drama, Komandarev also relegates the refugees to mostly wordless ciphers, a choice which weakens his film’s claim on universality or empathy. But not fatally so. The Judgment is still a timely, well-crafted thriller about a burning issue that looks set to dominate global politics for the foreseeable future.
Production companies: Argo Film Ltd, Neue Mediopolis Filmproduktion, Propeler Film, Sektor Film
Cast: Assen Blatechki, Predrag Manojlovic, Ovanes Torosian, Meto Jovanovski, Ina Nikolova
Director: Stephan Komandarev
Screenwriters: Stephan Komandarev, Marin Damyanov, Emil Spahiyski
Cinematographer: Krasimir Andonov
Editor: Nina Altaparmakova
Sales: Premium Films, Paris
Not rated, 117 minutes