Recently, while I was waiting for the bus at minus 100 degrees Celsius, a ragged lady with a crazy smile asked to borrow my phone. For a homebody like me, it was a rare opportunity to stand so close to someone so distant, to stay next to them a few minutes and hear sentences I wouldn’t otherwise be able to hear.
It was a worthy investment: the woman had an unexpected conversation, saying to someone on the other side that she will send them money on Monday, and she’d be fine during the week, as she had a loaf of bread and someone had brought her some cooked food. The call ended and she asked me whether she’d talked for too long and promised to buy me beer next time.
One of the important ongoing projects of art, I think, is this exactly: to achieve closeness. To introduce the unknown, to bring the distant near, to humanize the inhumane, to normalize what had been denied access to the norm, to make two lines that usually only pass by each other cross each other’s way. Walls become transparent, doors gape open, other people’s yards, kitchens and bedrooms are safely observable. Here is a sickness, here is a fight, here is a murder.
Here is Hristo. He is digging in the garbage, screaming on the street, sleeping under the bridge. Seen for just a second, he is something that our society is inclined to pass by, quickly labeling him with the ready-made “dirty gypsy”. Actually there is no question: Hristo is dirty and he’s a gypsy. However, while we accompany him for a hundred minutes, during which he’s moving boxes, saving for his own production workshop, warming up a can of moussaka, losing his job and his room, freezing in the darkness, crying by the canal, having indifferent sex with a horny bum, strangling a drunkard, cooking pasta for an overdosed friend, Hristo becomes much more than a dirty gypsy. Or maybe he becomes much less, he gets rid of the labels and turns into a plain human, a complicated human, like every human, with all his virtues and vices, all his joys and mishaps. The sharing of these hundred minutes seems only possible through cinema, not only because an eventual real exchange with Hristo would never exceed half a minute, but also because his typical instability and unpredictability of life: all the time he is hanging from society’s edge, about to drop down any second, either because no one gives a flip about him, or because he gets exhausted hanging in there. The connections between him and the structure of society are loose and short-lived. With the exception of his wretched friend Vancho, all the other characters only come and go: landlord, employer, clerk, even his mother that appears once, only to tell Hristo that she has no idea where his birth certificate is, then Hristo swears at her.
is abundant and insistant in showing all of the unexpected and simple obstacles in front of a person trying to climb away from the bottom: careless racism, inhumane bureaucracy, grey economy, pure bad luck…The conclusion, especially during the few moments when it seems that Hristo will finally break away from misery, he’ll start anew and only go up from there, his failure is determined not so much by his not being able to fit in our society, but by our society not being able to help him realize his potential, to give him a hand, to find him a job, to issue an ID for him, to explain. By the constant emphasizing, be it direct or not, that it’s all the same if Hristo is or isn’t.
The fiction debut of Grigor Lefterov and Todor Matsanov is yet another important drop in the wave of socially-engaged tragicomic realism that is rising in Bulgarian cinema. The recent Glory by Kristina Grozeva and Peter Valchanov and The Good Postman by Tonislav Hristov, too, share the same tone. They are all delivering an uncompromising social criticism, shedding light on helpless little victims of careless big projects, while paying much attention to entertaining storytelling: with recurring moments of comic relief and a likable central character, treated by both the screenplay and the camera with respect, compassion and care.
To me, Hristo is a pleasant and absorbing experience also because of Nenad Boroevich’s hand-held camera, the horde of popular comedians (Pavel Popandov, Lyubomir Neykov, Dimitar Rachkov, Julian Vergov), all playing episodic roles of evil landlords, employers and businessmen, and also the magnificent acting by Dimitar Nikolov, who is not only delivering a performance, but is managing to create a living, untypical character, colored by additional details, far from the stereotypical and monotonous, that are all the time increasing the feeling that I am really getting to know something unknown. Dimitar Krumov (playing Vancho), whom I accidentally acquainted one night in front of the National Palace of Culture, told me that the actors had spent a lot of time among prisoners and homeless people as a preparation work before the shooting. That is probably where the specific naturalistic feel comes from.
Although the film oscillates in my frequency and I was engulfed during the whole screening to the point of overlooking the narrative flaws (that I became conscious of only later on), nevertheless my viewing suffered from some unignorable defects, mainly at screenplay level. Most significantly, there were parts of the film in which the otherwise well-measured balance between action and stillness, between dialogue and silence, between plot development and meditative pause, was broken. Some of the pauses between events went on for too long, the tempo slowed down almost to a halt and this made me drift away from the story, it also made people drift away from the screening hall or at least take their phones out of their pockets. There were also some writing decisions, too easy and convenient, and therefore with the same distracting effect: it was difficult to believe, for example, that the workshop manager seemed to not have any other channels for finding working hands except Hristo (whom he’d just employed) — this circumstance was crucial for the story onwards, but it left an impression of a powerless writing.
Maybe that is the reason why the screening hall door in Cinema House slammed now and then. Or maybe it is because the likability I claim Hristo possesses is actually disputable. He is hardworking, purposeful, harmless and miserable, but also rude, short-tempered, lying and often unreasonable, not the perfect company as a whole. But as one writer says: the little compassion only sympathizes to the good, but the big compassion sympathizes to the bad as well. So no matter what, the hundred minutes with Hristo are a worthy investment in the big compassion. That way, next time we see him digging through the garbage, laying in the darkness, walking in anger, he’ll be a tad less alien to us.
After the screening I passed by a beggar kneeling by the subway exit. I went back to him, handed him a coin and searched for his eyes. He looked a little bit like Vancho. He wasn’t, but I felt that he would also buy me a beer. Next time.