Moth (Zahary Baharov), a would-be boxer and full-time loser, emerges from prison in the 60s, having missed out on most of his youth and a communist coup in 1944, serving time for a murder he didn’t commit, having taken the fall to protect his lover Ada (Tanya Ilieva) and their unborn child. He is barely out of the prison doors when he is abducted by army thugs and taken to be tortured by Slug (Vladimir Penev), once a small-time con man, now a commissar in the new hierarchy, hell-bent on finding a diamond that went missing after that murder decades ago…
Bulgarian neo-noir, anybody? Javor Gardev’s Zift makes no bones about the fact that it’s running on familiar rails. Ada’s femme fatale status is flagged up immediately when she is given the teenage nickname Mantis, and reinforced for those who haven’t got it yet when she reappears under the stage name Gilda in a slinky black number singing a tune that Rita Hayworth would find familiar. Moth is, of course, fatally drawn to his old flame. He seems to be smart enough to deliver the dry, world-weary voice-over, but not smart enough to avoid trouble, getting into the wrong car, falling into Slug’s traps. He spends the second half of the film as a dead man walking (with obvious nods to 1950’s D.O.A.) and the rain-sodden graveyard finale seems so inevitable that it feels oddly flat when it actually happens.
So Gardev, heavily assisted by screenwriter Vladislav Todorov and D.P. Emil Hristov, is serving us a very familiar brew, plot-wise, but, as if to compensate, goes mad on the decoration and delivery. Zift is full of inventive camera work and artful monochrome compositions. Moth staggers around in a sharp leather jacket and white shirt combo when he’s not naked and tattooed, his shaven scalp looking decidedly anachronistic for the 1960s (though various flashbacks tell us this is saving us from a coiffure that looks like a cheap carpet). His story is continually interrupted with grainy cutaways that illustrate other tales and ideas. What would be tense sequences in other films are undercut here by deliberately OTT touches, so an escape from Slug’s torturers results in Moth sliding on his arse through a Turkish bath full of screaming naked women chasing a glass eyeball. Elsewhere, it’s self-consciously cool in a way that reminded me of Europa-era von Trier and other art-house darlings of 20 years back, seeming to take place in its own hermetically sealed nightmare world. Well, either that or Bulgaria is a lot freakier than I think we all imagined. The clock is striking 17, 18, 19, and there are dwarf women selling insects in jars at flea markets in the woods, fart-lighting grave-diggers and creepy grinning nurses; everybody at a hospital seems compelled to tell stories of horror or embarrassment, and most of the cast seem prone to the kind of gutter philosophising that comes naturally to drunks or men serving hard time.
Zift comes to life in prison flashbacks and fever dream hallucinations, in its grotesques and non-sequiturs, and disappoints when it clambers back to its story. It’s hard to know how seriously we’re supposed to take all this: the off-the-peg plot and go-for-broke stylisation work against any kind of emotional tug. Are we meant to feel anything for these hard-boiled archetypes? Does it matter, when there’s all this neat stuff to look at? Ilieva is pretty damn sexy as Mantis. In a role that’s written as pure male fantasy, she manages to suggest that there’s more going on behind those eyes than Moth will ever comprehend. Baharov gives good lug as Moth, whose hangdog fatalism means that he never seems all that concerned by his own damnation. The whole thing is engaging and off-kilter and a little unsatisfying. It’s worth watching for those odd moments of Bulgarian business, but you can’t help wishing that all this invention and craft had been festooned around a story that needed telling.