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by Mel Valentin

"Stylish, if flawed, Eastern European neo-noir."
3 stars

SCREENED AT THE 52ND SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Directed by Javor Gardev from Vladislav Todorov’s adaptation of his own novel, "Zift" falls into a new genre hybrid, retro-Eastern European noir. Set in Communist Bulgaria (roughly from the mid-1940s through the early 1960s), "Zift" heavily borrows noir conventions, e.g., the flawed, fatalistic anti-hero, an illicit or illegal object of desire, a femme fatale, double-crossing associates, and a deeply cynical view of human nature and civil society, and, on a storytelling level, voice over narration and a non-chronological, flashback structure. "Zift" anchors these elements in a unique time and place, a Bulgaria under communist rule. That’s not enough to elevate "Zift" beyond the level of well-crafted imitation, but it makes for a marginally watchable 90-minute running time. "Zift" won the Silver George for Best Director at the Moscow International Film Festival. Bulgaria submitted "Zift" for the 81st Academy Awards' Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

Zift opens in classic noir fashion, with an offscreen, world-weary voice telling a story that’s equal parts humorous and repulsive. The story involves a waste management truck carrying three tons of human feces. Among other definitions, “Zift” is slang for “shit;” it’s also the name of black bitumen ball the anti-hero chews on repeatedly. The story has metaphorical and thematic resonance, for life under communist rule where the least powerful have the most to endure and for the moral compromises that enduring communist rule entails. Still true to noir form, Zift unfolds non-chronologically, opening after the credit sequence on Lev Kaludov Zhelyazkov (Zahary Baharov), a.k.a. "Moth," a.k.a. Leo, a small-time crook eagerly awaiting his release from the Sofia Penitentiary for a crime he claims he didn’t commit.

Moth has spent almost twenty years in prison. In that time, Soviet-controlled communists took power through a coup. Moth’s conversion to communism and his role as a communist propagandist in prison has led to his “early” release. Moments after his release from prison, however, two uniformed men kidnap Moth and take him to the local baths where the uniformed men force him to strip and stand in a pool of stagnant. His old friend, former business associate,
Slug (Vladimir Penev), appears. Slug has done Moth one better: he’s left his anti-social criminal behavior behind for a position in the communist party. Slug, however, hasn’t given up on the black diamond he and Moth stole years earlier. Slug tortures Moth for information, but then surprisingly offers him food and drink.

From there, Zift shifts back into recognizably noir territory: Moth escapes, but discovers, like the central character in D.O.A., that he’s been poisoned. His desperate plunge into a radically changed Bulgaria takes him to a doctor’s office where he listens to the patients try to one-up each other, a meeting with an old priest, stops by the giant mausoleum erected for a communist leader, a re-encounter with his former wife (and femme fatale), Ada (Tanya Ilieva), who sings in a nightclub (a scene practically lifted from Gilda), and ultimately confronts his own mortality in a graveyard, which in turn comes full circle to the opening voice over narration.

Both Gardev and Todorov certainly know their film noir history, but they often lose their way in the thicket of genre conventions, overusing Moth’s voice-over commentary, forgetting that we’re seeing or about to see what he’s describing, and exposition-heavy flashbacks. Although the flashbacks set in prison are crammed with black humor and cod-philosophizing thanks to a melancholy prisoner named Van Wurst-the Eye (Mihail Mutafov), a character who could have stepped out of "The Shawshank Redemption," they also drain the urgency from Moth’s last day and night. The performances range from the passable to the sub-par. Unfortunately, these flaws are only partly ameliorated by Emil Hristow’s stark black-and-white cinematography and Gardev’s occasional visual flourishes or odd camera angles.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=17952&reviewer=402
originally posted: 05/02/09 19:32:37
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2008 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 South By Southwest Film Festival For more in the 2009 South By Southwest Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 12th Annual European Union Film Festival For more in the 12th Annual European Union Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 Philadelphia Film Festival For more in the 2009 Philadelphia Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 Seattle International Film Festival For more in the 2009 Seattle International Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

8/10/10 Corky No one's mentioning how funny this film was- stylish, and brutal, to boot! 5 stars
8/06/09 Fenton Great film noir! Ignore the critics - see this film! 5 stars
5/31/09 Marilyn Shea One of the best movies I have seen for a long time 5 stars
4/23/09 Charles R.L. Power B&W neo-noir, very reminiscent of Frank Miller's Sin City stories 4 stars
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  N/A (NR)
  DVD: 13-Jul-2010



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