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Yet аnother comedy by director Nikolay Iliev, Reunion turned out to be the most watched film of 2019. Since almost no films were produced in 2020, this may turn out to be a historic success.

Comedies, in general, are a rare find in Bulgarian cinema and have the right to profit. Yet a prominent comedian in the theater and YouTube's sketch list like Kamen Donev only took third place in the viewership rankings with Comfort. A place that many creators supposedly overlook, but would shudder with genuine happiness if they reached it.

There is always a certain perversity in the analysis of a film that is successful with audiences.. If its success was surprising to critics, so much the worse. If not, as mediators and intermediaries between good cinema and bad viewers, and between bad films and haughty viewers, they feel no obligation to analyze it. The film's audience success turns out to be a fact one can't argue with. And yet if one agrees that in some cases it is deserved or legitimate, they remain somewhat behind the process. It's like machine translation - everyone knows the meaning of the words except the translation engine...

The case of Niki Iliev's Reunion is interesting because it once again raises questions, such as what success means in our cinema, what it is worth and whether it is worth it at all. And what the audience is actually looking for in films, without admitting or realizing it.

The son of the famous theatre director Boyko Iliev, who persistently subjects the audience to art therapies mainly through classical works, Niki Iliev, who also acts in his father's productions, has for years been like the stepchild of Bulgarian cinema. I don't believe he would be offended by this makeshift wording. It is more in the sense that he is shrouded by a certain silence on the part of critics, and not because in his films one can find in expected and unexpected places orphans, adopted children, stepmothers, etc.

An actor, model, TV presenter, director and writer of TV series and films, Iliev began his career with a mix between theatre and cinema through Say Hello to Dad, based on a stage play. The film has an artificial ending, as, by the way, most of Niki Iliev's films do. From there it tries to build brick by brick an extremely theatrical melodrama. "Say Hello to Daddy is frustratingly clumsy and fake, but there's a pretend appearance by a character Iliev loved, who would later lead him to success in his other films. This is a screenwriter character, someone who actively tries to intervene in the fate of others and who builds plots in life. Taking on the responsibility, dividends and pathologies that accompany such actions.

Next up is The Foreigner, now an outright comedy, involving characters who are relegated to their own comfort zone - women who look like models, Frenchmen in Bulgaria as if catapulted to the moon, and Niki Iliev himself in one of the lead roles. Even in his previous film, he used his lusty exterior to play a character who was either superficial or self-ironizing. His slightly stiff performances as an actor always carry that flavor - we see a frail pretty boy with honest eyes who could even master martial arts, but somehow in vain.

The Foreigner took the Audience Award at the Varna Film Festival, and the subsequent Living Legends was the most watched film of 2014. Iliev, habitually ignored by government subsidies, works alone, with sponsors and product placement. And increasingly elegantly, especially with Reunion, where most of the publicity shots look like real backgrounds from iconic, familiar and beloved places in Plovdiv. Not bad. When crowds of tourists raged around the world, they always legitimized places put on the map precisely because of movies and TV shows, not because of the selfless and gladsome labor of travel agents.

In Reunion, we see again a trite and slightly false ending. In the "memorable football summer" of 1994, the girls ride their bikes and on one of the hills of Plovdiv vow to meet in the same place 25 years later. No matter how old they are and no matter what has happened to them. The emotion of that generation, who for the first time felt that the world would be theirs (albeit on a football occasion) and looked at it with different eyes, is captured here very aptly and faithfully.

After 25 years, a TV presenter (Acho) of dubious fame, for which he was later mercilessly mocked by his friends, is the first to appear on the hill. Some amateur photographer is tirelessly filming, and Acho famously throws himself at him. Receiving a cool rebuff, he immediately excuses himself - "I'm not a fag", apparently a mistake has been made. This episode is far from the most eloquent, but it does illustrate the sense of comedy in the film. It's based on the mechanism - someone says one thing, thinking another, and even if they don't get a backlash, they compromise themselves by blurting out straight what's bothering them. The characters self-consciously realize the absurdity, guilt, stupidity, or doom of the situation they are in, and defend themselves in an extraordinarily comic way against unspoken thoughts. The dialogue is light, enjoyable, the ironic banter between the friends is fresh, and even the clichéd twist and situation is gradually developed and padded with much more serious and substantial character motivations. Things don't turn out to be as simple as they seem at first, and the action develops, becomes more complex, the characters become more fleshed out and legitimized as more intriguing.

The best hits are the film's female characters - modern women and girls with sharp tongues; independent, demanding, insightful, loquacious and unexpected, just as women should be. In the roles of stepmothers, cousins, elementary school idols, daughters-in-law, they become almost perfect female complements to the main characters, and actually help a lot in making them more relatable.

We also see Stefan Danailov's swan song in the frame as the grandfather of two of the characters, the bad and good cousin. He dispenses justice and inheritances with that familiar Bulgarian familial cruelty, devoid of any illusions or sense of guilt.

Niki Iliev definitely builds on his skills as a director and writer, at least with this film. The music in this film fits the film's action quite accurately, in tune mostly with the twists and turns of the characters' emotions. Even some questionable acting presences, such as Orlin Pavlov's and Dilyana Popova's, as well as his own, the director manages to push as intentional.

The important thing is that his characters are interesting, intelligent, funny, they come out sometimes a bit humiliated, but with honour from the rather confused situations they get into. And after all the trappings of laughter, jokes, intrigue and twists of fate, some real things shine through, like friendship, hometown nostalgia, love and forgiveness. And it's not delivered in a snide, preachy or demonstrative way. Somehow it quietly overflows from the screen with a special warmth. That's why I'm still excited that it's Reunion that's the audience's choice this year and not some absolutely anaemic films that followed it in the rankings. Getting viewers on your side isn't easy, especially if you have other noble goals.

Well, at the finale, everything gets totally lightened up and "The Comeback" turns into some kind of concert with iconic performers of our scene, while the main characters are nothing more than extras anymore. Perhaps in an attempt at one last friendly wink to the audience, the characters become just one of us - a little clumsily, but in keeping with the way it all began.

This publication is supported by Bulgarian National Culture Fund