Glory, dir. Kristina Grozeva, Petar Valchanov│It’s hard not to overstate just how good Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov’s Glory is, but it really is a masterpiece of storytelling, and that’s something that’s built into the directors’ script right from the start. In the film’s opening moments, we hear a talking clock read out the time over and over, as an enigmatic man with a great, bushy beard sets his watch. In the background of his cramped living room, a television reads out the news that that officials have been inappropriately buying and selling new railway carriages.
With remarkable brevity, we are painted a rich scene that is somehow stuck in a different time. An impression that is skilfully reinforced by Krum Rodriguez’s cinematography, because everything looks dated or fuzzy as if it were recorded on 90s television camera, and it’s all presented in a sort of TV-looking 16:10 aspect ratio. The set design is brilliantly retro also, filling almost every shot with dated, brownish objects.
Except Glory doesn’t play out in the past, it plays in an almost current day Bulgaria that seems stuck in a sort of stuck in a sort of moral quagmire of social corruption. Against this backdrop – without too much explanation, but plenty of character establishment – this impoverished man makes his way out of the house, and begins to patrol a railway track, with a giant, heavy wrench strapped to his back. On his way, he passes men who are syphoning off diesel from a big, resting locomotive.
With little more than a nod to these men, he sets about testing the bolts along the line with his hefty wrench. At first, it seems as though he too could be looking to steal something and turn it into a small profit, as though an entire society were profiting somehow from carving up this crumbling social network. It is only when the anonymous man discovers an abandoned mountain of cash and decides to call it in, that it becomes clear that he is a stuttering linesman called Tsanko (Stefan Denolyubov), who is actually just diligently doing his meagrely paid job like something of a working-class hero.
But people’s right to dignity in this feature is never quite as simple as its title suggests (partly what makes it so deliciously enjoyable). Even once the Bulgarian Transport Ministry seize Tsanko’s good deed as an opportunity to deflect national attention from the carriage scandal, the officious award ceremony they throw for him soon turns into a travesty. That’s because Glory very much sits between comedy and drama, like a perfect hybrid for satirising some the serious social problems that Grozeva and Valchanov pull apart.
And it really can’t be stressed enough how wonderfully funny Glory’s satire is either. Its delicate, almost infantine style is quite irresistible. Whether it’s by virtue of us not expecting some of the film’s darker ironies, or purely just the great comic timing of Valchanov’s editing or Denolyubov’s acting, this is one movie that is softly, and irresistibly hilarious. Take, for example, when Tsanko finds the money: first he finds a 50 note here, then a hundred one there, all with a child-like nervousness and a gleeful glance over the shoulder that gives Glory an almost cartoonish sense of humour.
It’s impossible for your inner child not to get sucked in by the linesman’s chance discovery too. It sends him hurtling on an unexpected, one-way collision course with his nemesis, government PR agent Julia Staykova (Margita Gosheva). Staykova is a real slick anti-hero, being a sort of extreme workaholic who is constantly answering her phone, even as she attends IVF treatments with her long-suffering husband.
Except Staykova’s character is never villanised because she is a career-driven, domineering woman. Nor is she eventually and tidily reduced to a woman who must have children. If anything her fiery relationship with her partner is endearing, and we are definitely drawn to her intoxicatingly suave, determined one-mindedness – a performance delivered perfectly by Gosheva. If anything, she is purely a great female villain, and what makes her detestable is the fact she acts as a very sophisticated figurehead of the complete disregard that Bulgarian officials show to the real problems of the people they are supposed to serve.
This breakdown in human relations sees an attempt to award the linesman a watch to say thank you for his good deed go horribly wrong. In the course of the ceremony, Staykova takes a family heirloom, a “Glory” watch, from the very hesitant Tsanko, and replaces it with a modern digital dud. Preoccupied by her own attempts to save the Ministry’s public face and start her own family, she loses his watch in a moment of complete absent mindedness, and slowly the scandalised Tsanko manages to blow this up into a full-blown political scandal.
The way these small happenings subsequently get out of control almost has the humour and logic of a classic folk tale. Grozeva and Valchanov create this complex sort of protagonist-antagonist struggle between evil and innocence, and just as in any good fable, Tsanko’s dogged efforts to be completely good cannot survive. But nor can the corrupt powers that be remain completely indifferent to him either.
Glory slowly paints a picture in which corruption at both the highest and lowest levels become completely and touchingly inseparable. Just by telling the story of a harmless, rabbit-loving railwayman, the two directors produce something of a much greater social value. It is a great example of how an almost classical style of storytelling can be made to feel remarkably fresh with a few smart, contemporary nuances.
And this movie is also a great example of how you can achieve a lot with just the humblest of ingredients, as Glory definitely feels like a mid- to low-budget affair. But it packs far more punch than most Hollywood blockbusters. Who knew a that a political satire based entirely on a series of railway disputes could turn into something so captivating?■
│In cooperation with│
Glory / Slava│ Director: Kristina Grozeva, Petar Valchanov│ Screenplay: Kristina Grozeva, Petar Valchanov, Decho Taralezhkov│ Camera: Krum Rodriquez│ Editing: Petar Valchanov│ Music: -│ Cast: Stefan Denolyubov, Margita Gosheva, Milko Lazarov│ Producer: Kristina Grozeva, Petar Valchanov, Konstantina Stavrianou, Rena Vougioukalou, Poli Angelova, Ralitsa Petrova, Veselka Kirykova│ Production Company:Abraxas Film / Graal S.A. / Screening Emotions / APORIA FILMWORKS │Country: Bulgaria / Greece│ Year: 2016 │ Running Time: 101 min.│ International Sales: Wide Management│ Festival: Vilnius FF 2017│