The Color of the Chameleon: Karlovy Vary Review

The Color of the Chameleon - H 2013

The Color of the Chameleon - H 2013

Kafka goes to Bulgaria.

This darkly satirical Eastern Bloc espionage comedy skewers state corruption under Communism and afterwards.

An absurdist comedy spy thriller with Kafka-esque overtones, this handsome Bulgarian production marks the feature debut of veteran cinematographer and music video director Emil Christov. The action mostly takes place in 1989, just before the fall of communism across Eastern Europe, though the film’s rich 35 mm look and heavily sardonic tone recalls an earlier golden age of political satires made in former Soviet satellite states like Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, with their pungent mix of sex, surrealism and social commentary. Screened at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival last week, this engaging comic fable has more festival mileage ahead, with potential word-of-mouth curiosity value for venturesome foreign distributors.

The antihero is Batko Stamenov (Ruscen Vidinliev), a charming and talented sociopath in the Tom Ripley mold. Shortly before Bulgaria’s communist regime falls apart, clean-cut student Stamenov is recruited by shifty secret police captain Mliakov (Rousy Chanev) to infiltrate an allegedly subversive cultural group at his university. Suspicions have been aroused by the group’s interest in the banned novel Zincograph: a postmodern joke, since this is the title of the Vladislav Todorov novel that inspired this film. Todorov also wrote the screenplay and served as co-producer.

PHOTOS: The 21 Best Movies About Whistleblowers

In between playing sadistic mind games with his tragicomically grotesque landlady, the cheerfully amoral Stamenev comes to relish passing on colorful, wildly embroidered reports to his secret police handlers. But when Mliakov fires him over a petty mistake, the vengeful trainee spy continues with his infiltration mission on a freelance basis, posing as an undercover officer for a new branch of the security services focused on sexuality and “the creative management of orgasm.” Jumping forward to postcommunist Bulgaria, Stamenev’s former dissident informants are now in positions of power, but their past confessions and sleazy misdeeds come back to haunt them in an explosive blackmail scandal. New political system, same old rotten apples.

The Color of the Chameleon is peppered with knowing homages to classic espionage novels and movies, including a recurring Casablanca motif which highlights that film’s obscure Bulgarian subplot. It is also full of bumpy narrative swerves and odd tonal shifts that Christov does not appear to have fully under control. At almost two hours, it feels overlong, while many of its cultural references will obviously make more sense in Sofia than in San Francisco. All the same, the artful camera work by Krum Rodriguez is a constant pleasure, and there is enough ripe material in this ambitiously bizarre satire to reward curious outsiders for their patience.

Production company: Peripeteia

Producers: Vladislav Todorov, Bouriana Zakharieva

Cast: Ruscen Vidinliev, Rousy Chanev, Irina Milyankova, Svetlana Yancheva

Director: Emil Christov

Writer: Vladislav Todorov

Cinematographer: Krum Rodriguez

Editor: Alexander Etimov

Sales company: Peripeteia

Unrated, 114 minutes