One of the most valuable aspects of foreign film is getting to see the world - and the motion picture equivalent of same - through a vastly different set of cinematic lenses. From cultural disparities to sentiments of sovereignty, the international director draws from numerous sources to make his celluloid statement, and unlike his Hollywood compatriots, there’s usually not a predetermined demographic directly responsible for the narrative’s nuances. That’s why, when filmmakers from outside the US start mimicking the movie provenance that helped create and cement the artform, the translation is usually fairly evocative. And in the case of Zift, it’s made more interesting by the nation of origin. While not known for its endemic art, Bulgaria provides the stunning back drop for this neo-noir experiment.
After spending several decades in prison for a murder he did not commit, “the Moth” is finally being released. While behind bars, he’s embraced the Communist coup that’s overtaken his country, even going to far as to organize the inmates. When he gets out, he’s picked up by a stern looking military attaché who takes him directly to a public bath. There, he meets up with an old nemesis, former street hood turned important Party Member Slug. The vile villain wants to know where Moth hid a valuable diamond. All our hero wants is to break free and be with his ex-girlfriend (and mother of his now dead son) Ada. As he searches for his former lover all over the city, Slug still wants his information. Before he knows it, Moth’s desires and those of the man making his life miserable intersect - and as usual, there’s a woman involved…Moth’s woman.
If it didn’t have such an evocative monochrome set-up, if it failed to fully realize the various cinematic references and homage it houses, Zift would be a dull, derivative mess. It would resemble a hundred other cramped crime stories where atmosphere and mood are supposed to substitute for characterization and causality. We’d find ourselves lost in a country wholly unfamiliar to ours, while wondering why certain military and authoritarian subtexts are being inserted into the film. But thanks to the visual flair of director Javor Gardev, and the undeniable invention he brings to this tale, what could have been a tired, typical thriller becomes a remarkable bit of engaging eye candy. The story may be simple, and the resolution revealed early and often, but we really don’t mind the plot imperfections. It’s the journey here that’s worth the effort.
Gardev works us through many of the more ambiguous elements. The Moth is viewed as a capable local hood, but yet spends most of his time in prison befriending an one-eyed thief. There are clear signs of our hero’s Communist leanings (he gets out early because of his initiatives in jail), yet that facet flies out the window the minute the torture begins. Our main scoundrel - the corporeal criminal Slug - is not so much a threat as an unwelcome obstacle our hero must overcome. There’s also an inference that everything Moth does is designed to feed his ultimate goal - to get out of Bulgaria and set up a sweet life in the Tropics somewhere. Indeed, you could almost argue that Moth’s entire raison d’etra is centered around getting out of prison, finding his former gal pal, making up with her, and then hopping a train out of town.
Naturally, things get in the way, and part of Zift‘s pleasure is watching these unusual obstructions come and go. Gardev spends inordinately large amounts of time on people’s faces, watching them as they tell their tall tales about septic tank revenge, or mangled marital fidelity. These pieces of significant suplot folklore, meant to mirror the action onscreen with their surreal sense of moral right and wrong, are part of this picture’s many pleasures. Just hearing the actors spin the yarns creates a kind of climate where the insane visual histrionics play perfectly. This is one director who has clearly absorbed all the iconic influences around him. From Hong Kong action to American criminal mythos, Zift seems to have it all.
And then there are the native nuances, the foreign touches that stay with us long after the film has ended. One is the title treat itself, a black strap gum that Moth loves to chew. The word can also mean the mortar used to hold bricks and stone together (as in the newly fashioned public square in the middle of the empiric capital city), or slang for shit. In this case, both Gardev and his characters, taken from Vladislav Todorov’s novel, represent them all. In the best noir tradition, no one is pure here. Everyone has motives that keep them mired in misery and filth. Even Ada, now working as a singer in an upscale nightclub, allows herself to be kept by important Communist officials. In addition, the bond between Moth, his gal, and the slimy Slug is unquestionable. Once their petty theft went from a heist to a homicide, all three share a cement-like status.
What we wind up with is a whodunit and why that’s as joyful in the discovery as it is borderline bumbling in its conclusion. Gardev has to be careful in his reveals, the D.O.A. dynamic at play (Moth was poisoned before going on his search) threatening to take our attention away from the clues. Thanks to some ingenuous flashbacks, a telling look or two, and a last moment disclosure that clarifies the motives of everyone involved, Zift moves beyond the basics to work its way toward the classic. That it doesn’t quite get there is not the fault of anyone involved. From cast to crew, there is too much talent in this movie to marginalize its effectiveness. No, what takes Zift down a peg or two is its obviously newfound familiarity. For those outside the source, this will all seem very novel. For those on the inside, it’s imaginative imitation - which we all know is the sincerest, and in this case, most meaningful form of flattery.