THE “OTHER” EUROPE
With a large influx of immigrants and refugees into Western Europe and the anti-immigrant sentiment on the rise, there is more reason than ever to tell stories about “the other Europe.” Fittingly, this year’s main competition at the Locarno Film Festival included two Bulgarian films—Glory, coproduced with Greece and directed by Kristina Grozeva and Peter Valchanov, and Godless, a Bulgarian-French-Danish coproduction, directed by Ralitza Petrova. The third powerful offering in the main slate, Marija, directed by Swiss filmmaker Michael Koch, tells a story of a Ukrainian immigrant struggling to find stability in Germany.
All three films feature strong female leads and could be seen, to some extent, as offshoots of Eastern Europe’s cinema of “moral concern.” The term was wildly used to describe Polish cinema in the 1980s, yet understood more broadly, the recent offerings from Eastern and Southeastern Europe have not lacked for moral disquietude. Films as diverse as Cristi Puiu’s Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005), Sergei Loznitsa’s My Joy (2010), Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan (2014) or Yury Bykov’s The Fool (2014) are but a few in a long stream of searching, often absurdist tales.
In a similar vein, Glory is a bleak satire about a simple man whose honor is trampled by the big media. Things start off well for Tsanko Petrov (Stefan Denolyubov). A quiet railway worker, Tsanko finds a large sum of money on the tracks and turns it in, thus becoming a national hero. But when he is given as reward a watch that immediately breaks, and stripped of his own (a family heirloom), his attempts to recover the valuable item end in failure. This leads him to a savvy journalist, who uses Tsanko to expose government corruption. As in Nikolai Gogol’s stories, the seemingly trivial object—a watch—stands in for Tsanko’s wounded dignity. Tsanko’s immediate nemesis is Julia (Margita Gosheva), a bossy, ultra-busy government spin-doctor, who has no time for Tsanko’s all too human sentiments. In Grozeva and Valchanov’s tightly plotted, sarcastic film, Tsanko is being ruthlessly wound up, until he snaps. Julia’s blithe disregard is an echo of communism that treated individuals as a means to an end. But it can also be seen as a capitalist menace, a direct result of the mantra that time is money and image is everything.
A different moral tale, with more frequent realist touches and understated performances, is at the center of Godless, which won the competition’s main prize. Gana (Irena Ivanova), a withdrawn nurse, manipulates her patients to steal their identity cards, which she then traffics with the help of her male accomplices. From the start, we see how low Gana has sunk, as the local police are involved in the scheme. But it seems that Gana can keep the danger at bay. With automaton-like motions that recall an effectively pre-programmed machine, yet at times reveal slight hints of tenderness, Gana is both chilling and tormented. Much of the film hinges on Ivanova’s fine performance, her round, seemingly emotionless face, and the disturbing glare of her intensely blue eyes. When Gana meets an elderly choir conductor and begins to sing, her new connection awakens in her the once lost ethical feeling. Things get worse when the conductor stands up to the local mafia. Torn, Gana takes a dramatic step, as if oblivious to the fact that the corrupt world she has joined has no concern for fine gestures. As in Leviathan, My Joy or Fool, there is no real way out, and the only possible riposte is unfathomable cruelty. But Petrova takes this thread a step further. In the finale, a god-like twist makes the corrupt pay for their evil deeds, turning Godless into a grim moralist tale.
By contrast, Koch’s Marija resorts neither to the grotesque touches that fuel Glory nor to the deus-ex-machina effects in Godless. Firmly rooted in the everyday and in psychological nuance, it may yet be the most effective of all three films in how it presents self-determination. Julia in Glory is a manipulator before she becomes a victim; Gana in Godless is both, with hints that she was once violated and has externalized her trauma. Marija (Margarita Breitkreiz), the title character of Koch’s film is neither, though she is not entirely guileless. When she runs behind on her rent, Marija gives a blow job to her Turkish landlord, Cem (Sahin Eryilmaz). Her decision is tactical, and she refuses to be shamed. Moreover, the gesture soon leads to permanent work: Marija proves useful to the landlord as a translator fluent in Russian. She helps negotiate with tenants and debtors. The world in which Marija moves is a shadowy one, for sure. We can never be sure how much manipulation or abuse goes on behind the scenes, when it comes to the impoverished tenants. Marija is thus a social climber, but it is clear that she does what she must to survive. She also has a goal in sight: to raise enough money to open her own hair salon. When she falls in with an ambitious German businessman, Georg (Georg Friedrich), who may also be an ex-con, she helps him negotiate construction contracts. The two start an ambiguous relationship, in which Marija is a prize to be shown off to clients, but also, increasingly, a commandeering business partner and, eventually, a lover. Yet when her partner falls on bad luck, she must decide if she can afford to preserve her feelings for him. Clear-eyed, but also fully aware of the price she must pay for her obstinacy, she proves in the end a rarely-seen heroine in mainstream cinema: not demonized, but certainly complicit in the misery that surrounds her. This is perhaps one immigrant tale that best captures the shadowy in-between world of illegality and incipient stability that some immigrants face not only in Angela Merkel’s Germany, but anywhere, where there is still some chance to make a “home.”