Despite its generic genre title, the newly imported Bulgarian film Fear (2020, streaming on Film Movement) is essentially a comedy—about xenophobia, refugeeism, jingoism, toxic masculinity, and old-fashioned pig ignorance. All of which run on tanks of fear, one could say. The film, serenely shot in 30 shades of gray, also gleefully casts its gimlet eye upon the place itself, the post-Communist outlands, a familiar yet still jarring rural moonscape of dissipation and decay, once cratered by runaway state madness and never recovered.
That’s a lot, but it’s a small, modest film, with a tight smirk that never quite fades. Writer-director Ivaylo Hristov is no newbie—in his 70s now, he’s been a busy actor, particularly since Communism fell in 1989—and his film has the wizened bemusement of a barfly collecting stories from strangers. Except that here, in a tiny hardscrabble village on the Turkish border, everyone knows everyone else, beginning with Svetla (vet Svetlana Yancheva), a bitter widow and unemployed teacher (the under-attended school’s been closed) who off-handedly fields lazy come-ons from the men around her, including the small brigade of border police.
Out hunting hares—not for sport—Svetla stumbles upon Bamba (Michael Flemming), a suitcase-carrying refugee from Mali, on his way to Germany but somehow transplanted into the Balkan nowheres. With no shared language, Svetla takes him prisoner at gunpoint (because she thinks she should), but the half-drunk, semi-trained border cops don’t want him—they have a small crowd of new Syrian families to house and feed. (The movie squeezes a good bit of sober farce out of a penniless and inept municipality’s attempt at refugee management.) So Svetla grouchily houses “the African,” and the film allows their relationship to slowly bud, without any overt acts of graciousness or connection. They just end up relying on each other, and things happen, off-screen.
That is, of course, when things go predictably bad, as the town’s bigotry rises to meet the occasion. Very used to rousting Arabs and “Gypsies,” these Bulgarians don’t seem to know how exactly to be racist toward an African, but they manage. Hristov maintains an ironic tone throughout; neither the film nor Svetla is very surprised by her neighbors’ petty terrorisms (she had always slept with a hunting knife under her pillow anyway), and Hristov is so wearily blase about the threat of violence that confrontations come off like failed improv comedy. The least low-key bull’s-eye is the risible disparity between a local newscaster’s effort to gin up the “immigrant crisis” (“As you can see, things are very tense here”) and the border patrol’s pot-bellied nonchalance.
Hristov is in no hurry, and however unpreachy the movie is in texture, the plot’s moral simplicity eggs us on to hope that a fresh detour will be found, to veer around the can’t-we-all-just-get-along messaging. Thankfully, at the 11th hour, the movie skirts the obvious and conjures an unexpected deadpan sweetness. In the meantime, Hristov takes us on a thorough tour of this tired corner of Euro-crisis, including a drone plunge through what looks like the monstrous ghost city of Costa del Croco, on the Black Sea, a skeletal concrete maze abandoned after its Russian mobster developers were expelled from the country in 2009. It’s as deft a looming metaphor as you’d need for a neglected corner of the world you only arrive at if you’re dead set on going somewhere else. ❖
Michael Atkinson has been writing for the Village Voice since 1994. His latest book is the new edition of his BFI tract on David Lynch’s Blue Velvet.