'The Father' ('Bashtata'): Film Review | Karlovy Vary 2019

Courtesy of Abraxas Film
A charmingly neurotic sentimental journey.

A dysfunctional family funeral sparks a wild road trip in this prize-winning Bulgarian tragicomedy.

Bulgarian writer-director duo Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov switch to a more gently absurd comic gear with their third feature after the caustic social commentary of their award-winning dramas The Lesson (2012) and Glory (2016), the latter an official Oscar nominee. The Father is a bittersweet family farce set in the rural Bulgarian hinterlands, a place where people still trust more in ancient superstition and magical folklore than in crooked state bureaucracy. The story may test the limits of plausibility in places, but overall this off-the-map road movie is a humane, compassionate, character-driven delight.

Partly inspired by real events, The Father reunites Grozeva and Valchanov with several key crew and castmembers from their previous features. This Greece-Bulgaria co-production world-premiered last week in the main competition section at Karlovy Vary film festival, where it won the main prize, the Crystal Globe. Rich in comic mischief and relatable themes, the antic screenplay has some of the same universal charm as Maren Ade's critically revered German prizewinner Toni Erdmann (2016). It should find a warm welcome on the festival circuit, with theatrical interest also a solid option based on the directing duo's track record. Paris-based Wide Management is handling global sales.

At a family funeral in the sunny countryside, long-buried generational fault lines soon resurface. Flustered 40-ish advertising man Pavel (Ivan Barnev) has driven back to his home region from his new cosmopolitan life in the capital city Sofia, arriving just in time to see his beloved mother Valentina buried. His father Vassil (Ivan Savov), an egotistical painter with a fondness for windy speeches and impetuous gestures, demands that the casket lid be reopened so that a mortally embarrassed Pavel can snap some last memorial shots. And so the power struggle begins.

Meanwhile, Pavel's permanently buzzing cellphone rudely disrupts the solemn burial ceremony. Back home in Sofia, his heavily pregnant wife (The Lesson and Glory star Margita Gosheva, who is heard but never seen here) has not been informed about the funeral, and is becoming increasingly suspicious about her husband's vaguely explained absence. Missed phone messages become a motif throughout the film, serving both as literal plot device and metaphor for communication problems between the main protagonists.

After the funeral, Vassil outlines his plans for a commemorative painting of Valentina, incorporating his colorfully goofy beliefs in New Age pseudo-science. He also insists that mysterious posthumous phone calls from his late wife prove that she is trying to contact him from the astral plane. Despite Pavel's reservations, he delays his return to Sofia in order to indulge his grieving father by taking him to see Valentina's favorite spiritualist guru, a shamanic snake-oil salesman who has pointedly set up business in a former Soviet-era military museum.

The escalating battle of wills between stubborn father and skeptical son that follows is full of great comic vignettes, including a deliciously deadpan confrontation with local police over a stolen jar of homemade jam, and a creepy brush with opportunistic hospital staff desperate to squeeze maximum profit from minor medical misfortune. These satirical snapshots of everyday corruption in post-Communist Bulgaria recall some of the darker threads in The Lesson and Glory.

Barnev's brow-furrowed, perpetually exasperated performance as Pavel anchors the film, and he is clearly intended as the locus of audience identification, but Savov is arguably more compelling as the Lear-like patriarch whose grip on reality has been hilariously scrambled by grief and mild concussion. Grozeva and Valchanov's regular cinematographer Krum Rodriguez shoots The Father in zippy handheld style, sticking close to the characters as they pinball frantically around the Bulgarian countryside. The effect is suitably cartoonish, though there are moments of soothing calm, too, particularly during the folksy final resolution, which has a corny but satisfying sweetness.

Venue: Karlovy Vary International Film Festival (Competition)
Production companies: Abraxas Film, Graal
Cast: Ivan Barnev, Ivan Savov, Tanya Shahova, Hristofer Nedkov, Nikolay Todorov, Boyan Dochinov, Margita Gosheva, Ivanka Bratoeva
Directors, screenwriters: Petar Valchanov, Kristina Grozeva.
Cinematographer: Krum Rodriguez
Editor: Petar Valchanov
Music: Hristo Namliev
Producers: Kristina Grozeva, Petar Valchanov, Konstantina Stavrianou, Irini Vougioukalou
Sales company: Wide Management, Paris
91 minutes