Oscars: Reality Meets Dark Comedy in Bulgaria's 'Glory'

Courtesy of Film Movement

'Glory,' the second film in a planned trilogy, explores the absurdity in the true story of a reclusive Bulgarian railway worker whose life unravels after he stumbles upon a huge sum of money.

It sounds like the plot of a novel by Franz Kafka, but it's the synopsis of Glory, Bulgaria's official entry in the foreign-language Oscar race.

Though Petar Valchanov and his wife and co-director, Kristina Grozeva, didn't set out to channel Kafka, he says, "Kafka is very much the reality in Bulgaria."

The directing team's second narrative feature, Glory tells the story of Tzanko Petrov (Stefan Denolyubov), a railway lineman with an innate idealism, a terrible stutter and a thick beard he cannot shave because he "made an oath," the backstory of which is never revealed. Each day, Tzanko wakes up in his tiny apartment and carefully sets his watch — a gift from his father — to the second. He dons his safety vest, tucks his wrench behind the straps of his backpack and walks out to the tracks, where he tightens bolts and steers clear of his colleagues as they steal fuel from the railway carriages.

One day, Tzanko stumbles upon a pile of cash. It's 1 million leva — roughly $600,000 — loose on the tracks. Honest to the core, he tells the authorities. But no good deed goes unpunished, and in an effort to create some positive spin for the corrupt ministry of transportation, a cynical publicist (Margita Gosheva) exploits Tzanko's story. She parades him in front of the media, takes his precious watch and replaces it with a cheap one as a "reward" for his honesty. All Tzanko wants is to retrieve his original watch, care for his pet rabbits and be left alone, but he finds himself trapped in a labyrinth of bureaucratic nonsense — and worse.

Incisive and darkly funny, Glory is the second film in a trilogy that began with 2014's well-received The Lesson. Grozeva and Valchanov based both films, as well as the forthcoming third installation (working title: The Hole), on Bulgarian newspaper articles.

"In these three stories, there is a lot of absurdism," explains Valchanov. "From one side, this was very typical for Bulgarian situations, but from the other side, we discovered that there are a lot of universal elements in these things — a lot of absurdity, a lot of drama and humor, and with this combination, we developed tragic elements."

Perhaps the most tragic aspect of Glory is Tzanko's transformation. One cannot help but root for such a simple, honest soul and wince at each injustice as the system robs him of his innocence, his uncomplicated idealism and even his beard.

But the story is not without hope. The publicist undergoes her own more positive transformation, shedding some of her callousness as she comes to grips with how she has treated Tzanko. And whether Tzanko completely abandons his values is left intentionally ambiguous. The filmmakers wanted the audience to decide whether hope or cynicism wins the day.

"This is the challenge to the viewership," says Valchanov, "to invite them to be a co-writer, everybody in his personal way."

This story first appeared in the Dec. 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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