Javor Gardev’s début feature “Zift” is a widescreen homage to the American film noir. It is about a recently released prisoner hounded by his partner in crime from twenty years earlier for the missing portion of the loot.
Set sometime during the 1960’s, Lev aka Moth (Zahary Baharov, credited as Zachary Baharov), is released from prison for good behaviour after having served twenty years. He took the fall for a murder he didn’t commit, so as to extricate his pregnant girlfriend Ada aka Mantis (Tanya Ilieva) for her involvement in a burglary. She was one of his two accomplices – the other being Slug (Vladimir Penev), the killer. No sooner is Moth released from prison, he is picked up by two army types and carried to a basement cell at the public baths, to be interrogated and tortured by erstwhile pal and accomplice Slug, who’d since become a state official after the 1944 communist coup. Slug is after a diamond that went missing during the burglary that ended in murder, and Moth’s incarceration.
The story is told through non-linear flashbacks, and the only way we recognise the period the scene is set in (aside from Moth’s hair, or the lack thereof) is by the film stock used – 35 mm for the sixties, grainy 16 mm for the nineteen forties, and even grainier 8 mm stock for the period before that. The film liberally borrows elements from well known classics of film-noir (and neo-noir). The main thread of the plot nods to Rudolph Maté’s “D.O.A.”, which sees Moth being poisoned by Slug – he will die within two days unless offered an antidote that only Slug possesses. Ada is now a cabaret singer going by the name of Gilda, and the scene where Moth catches up with his old flame reminds us of Rita Hayworth in the original “Gilda”. The graveyard scene and the protagonist’s nihilistic characterisation itself seems to have been inspired by Nikos Nikolaidis’ Singapore Sling.
The crisp black and white cinematography is appealing, and the camera angles suggest a storyboard drawn from classic comic strips. The film is entertaining in the way it takes a wry look at Bulgaria before and during communism, with the help of eccentric characters who’ve been imbued with barfly wisdom and a penchant for gutter-humour. It also obsesses over its title (‘Zift’ refers to the Arabic term for Asphalt but also means ‘chewing gum’, and ‘shit’ in Bulgarian slang – all three meanings are referenced). As Ada aka Mantis, Tanya Ilieva looks the mysterious femme fatale, with a tattoo of a praying mantis on her belly that hints of her predatory nature.
Moth is decorated with tattoos too, which beg questions about the film’s attempt at authenticity – one would think body art couldn’t possibly be the raging fashion during the 1940’s unless you were either a gypsy, sailor, or a jailbird. Similar doubts linger about the costumes, which appear rather chic for a working class couple. Even though the film is well made, it lacks a purpose other than as an ode to the genre – it is a film made by a film-noir fan, as opposed to it being an actual film-noir. But if you fancy watching hard-boiled characters utter clichés using voice-overs, in widescreen, this might be for you.
The Nudity: Zahary Baharov, Tanya Ilieva, Rositsa Dicheva, and many others
Zahary Baharov is Bulgaria’s answer to Vin Diesel, and if hunks are your thing you’ll find plenty to admire in his tattooed nakedness. At the other end is Tanya Ilieva appearing nude in a couple of scenes, the first of which is a steamy sex session between Ada and Moth, inter-cut with a praying mantis copulation, towards the end of which the female devours the male’s head. Rositsa Dicheva is the only other ‘credited’ nude – she’s the girl in the bathtub as Moth literally flies past her during a frantic glass-eyeball chasing sequence in an all-female spa, after escaping from Slug’s torture chamber.