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Bulgarian writer-director Stephan Komandarev’s best-known previous films — such as the widely travelled 2008 intergenerational Oscar-submission The World Is Big and Salvation Lurks Around the Corner and 2014’s border-set drama The Judgment — have put the issues of immigration and emigration right at the heart of their stories. With his latest, Directions, which screened in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard section, that theme is once again present, but Komandarev this time focuses more closely on the tortured soul of Bulgarians who haven’t left their native land, or at least not yet. A criss-crossing narrative that hops from taxi to taxi over the course of roughly a day and night, this plays more like a series of shorts of variable quality rather than a coherent whole. Still, Komandarev’s empathy for people struggling to survive as best they can is palpable and admirable. The film could have appeal on the festival circuit like the director’s earlier work, even though viewers will come away with a very vivid, specific portrait of contemporary Sofia in all its seedy splendor.
The first, instigating vignette is in some ways the best one. After dropping off his 12-year-old daughter (the director’s own kid, Anna Komandareva) at school, small businessman Misho (Vassil Vassilev-Zuek), who drives a taxi to earn extra cash, picks up another teenager (Borislava Stratieva), who turns out to be moonlighting herself as a prostitute. He argues with her about her life choices, and takes her back to school before going on to meet the dead-eyed banker Popov (Georgi Kadurin) with whom Misho has dealings. Angry that Misho has complained about Popov’s corruption, Popov puts the squeeze on him for more money; otherwise he’ll have all of Misho’s assets seized. At the end of his tether, Misho shoots Popov dead and then turns the gun on himself, managing to put himself in a coma.
The following stories are tied together by the fact that they, too, all take place in taxis, and as the evening wears on, in each car the drivers listen to a local talk-radio station where callers take up a variety of positions about Misho’s shooting of Popov, with some decrying his criminality and others hailing him a hero. Poor Misho, however, is clearly doomed because in the second self-contained segment, female cabbie Rada (Irini Zhambonas) picks up the heart surgeon who is en route to the hospital to perform a transplant, moving Misho’s heart into that of an unemployed baker. On the way, Rada and he discuss how dysfunctional the country has become, and how much the surgeon is looking forward to leaving to take up a new job in Hamburg.
The subject comes up often during the various subsequent taxi rides. Some viewers may wonder why Bulgarian cabbies never make small talk and just talk about football or the weather, but as drama it’s fitfully effective. One of the more effective sequences centers around driver Zhoro (Assen Blatechki) as he tries to talk schoolteacher Petar (Troyan Gogov) out of throwing himself off a bridge. Elsewhere, scenes involving sad-sack Kosta (Vasil Banov), an older man whose son has just died and ends up pouring out his woe to a stray dog, are a little too obvious and melodramatic, as is a credulity-stretching revenge story involving Rada picking up someone from her past.
What is quite impressive is how clear the imagery is given it was shot on a handheld camera inside the various taxis used with no obvious additional lighting, taking advantage of the new Arri Alexa mini camera to capture the action under what must be challenging conditions for a cinematographer. (Arri is one of the film’s key producers.) So as a showreel of what the camera can do, this does the trick even if the car-ride-stories setup is a bit too familiar as a device, used by Jim Jarmusch, Abbas Kiarostami and others to more impressive effect.
Production companies: An Arri Media International presentation of an Argo Film, Aktis Film, Sektor Film production in co-production with Bulgarian National Television, Digital Images, Contrast Films
Cast: Vasil Vasilev-Zueka, Ivan Barnev, Assen Blatechki, Irini Zhambonas, Vasil Banov, Troyan Gogov, Dobrin Dosev, Guerassim Guergulev “Gero,” Dimitar Banenkin, Stephan Denolyubov
Director: Stephan Komandarev
Screenwriters: Stephan Komandarev, Simeon Ventsislavov
Producers: Stephan Komandarev, Katya Trichkova, Stelios Ziannis, Vera Weit, Vladimir Anastasov, Angela Nestorovska
Executive producer: Katya Trichkova
Director of photography: Vesselin Hristov
Art director: Maria Koycheva
Costume designer: Zaklina Krstevska
Editor: Nina Altaparmakova
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard)
Sales: Arri Media Intl.
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