2009-03-11 (Limited release)

Editor’s note: Zift is one of five films included in a collaboration between IFC and SXSW to bring the festival live to 30 million U.S. homes on their “IFC Festival Direct” on demand channel. Available on television as of March 14th.

Jailed in 1944, “before the [Bulgarian] Communist coup,” Moth (Zahary Baharov) emerges into the ’60s a man out of time. This black-and-white Sofia is full of big shots, dicks, and gunsels, not so different from prison in appearance, save for the women and new technologies. Cocky and convinced that his “plan” for the future will carry him forward, Moth — his name bestowed when he was a child and liked to “hide in closets and suitcases to scare people” — can’t anticipate that the “outside” will so closely resemble the deeply subjective realm of film noir.

Strikingly composed and deeply shadowed, the treacherous world in Zift combines politics and pop, fantasies from history and movies. Named for the black chewing gum that Moth likes to chew, also used to make asphalt and a slang term for shit, Javor Gardev’s clever, frankly gorgeous film borrows from 1940s prison films and gangster flicks. In flashbacks, Moth recalls his best friend and cellmate Van Wurst the Eye (Mihail Mutafov), his own moniker the result of the glass eye that replaced the one he lost during a heist, wise and chatty the way cellmates tend to be in B movies. “For the soul,” Van Wurst asserts, “the eyes are like peas under a princess’s mattress. They don’t let her rest.” Indeed, since his best friend’s suicide by hanging on the eve of his release from prison, Moth carries the glass eye wherever he goes, a sign of his loyalty and faith in Van Wurst’s worldview. “To find peace,” Van Wurst says, peeing into their small urinal, “You have to cut off your ties with the world. Especially with women. Especially with the Woman. Know that: man is a living coral until he’s touched by the Woman. When the woman touches him, hell touches him.”

No kidding. Moth has his own femme fatale outside, the sultry Ada (Tanya Ilieva), whom he spotted, his story goes, as a plaid-skirted schoolgirl, her thighs parted so he might look up from a glimpse of her white underpants from the bench where he sits below her. “The crotch invitingly loose, her flesh seeking touch,” he recalls, “Her eyes parted shyly and I peeped in… She pulled a hidden trigger inside me.” Seduced by the girl he would come to call “Mantis,” Moth is ever aware of the threat she poses, narrating the story of the female praying mantis, who bites off and eats her male partner’s head during copulation (a set of intercut scenes show Moth and Ada thrusting alongside nature-documentary close-ups of the bugs going at it).

No matter that Ada might have her own struggles or desires (or the child she lost to lockjaw). Here she’s the straight-up embodiment of Moth’s dreams (at least, when he’s not writing passionate love letters to his prison amour, Valentine [Yavor Veselinov] while also denying the rumors that they’re “fags”). Seeking as he lurches through life-after-prison he stumbles into a nightclub where the long-lost Ada is singing on stage — renamed Gilda and, like Rita Hayworth of the 1946 film, inviting men to blame women (here refigured as “the moon”) for historical disasters like the 1901 Kaliakra earthquake. She stands on stage, viewed from over Moth’s shoulder, his back to her as he does his best not to see her, her long black gown and gloves evoking Hayworth’s memory as well as the moment she so stunningly incarnated — when totalitarianism seemed defeated and romance, as well as democracy, seemed possible.

Though Moth does his best to follow Van Wurst’s credo and resist Ada’s significant charms, he is nonetheless done in by the belief that he has any control over the dark alleys he calls the “hood.” His past can’t help but catch up with him, and once Moth is paroled (for, he says in his hardboiled voiceover, “introducing Communist enlightenment into prison life, I launched a propaganda campaign on my own initiative and thoughtful idea”), he’s surely doomed. Picked up outside the prison gates by a sergeant major (Tsvetan Dimitrov) who seeks a diamond Moth has stolen and hidden away, our hero is subjected to abuses — stripped naked and strapped to a table in a basement, where he is subjected to electric shocks and excessive pummeling.

Still, he hangs onto his secret, even when, like Edmund O’Brien in D.O.A., he’s informed that he’s been poisoned and there’s no antidote. If the substance inside him, iridium, isn’t precisely polonium, the allusion to former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko’s 2006 murder in London is hard to miss. Moth has no seeming agenda beyond his own prosperity, but his conflicts with the crooks produced by and running the state are plain enough. Even without a good heart or worthy intentions, Moth serves as a decent hapless victim, of his own limited ambition and willful ignorance as much as anything else. His quest for survival can’t end well.

“There’s this book called Candide,” he instructs fellow barflies. As Moth reads it, Voltaire asks which is “the human thing to do, to drift around the world with no direction or goal, and be raped by a bunch of vulgar Bulgarians, or to sit down on your warm butt in life’s flower-bed.” Moth’s efforts to do either are circumscribed by his evocative B-movie state. For all his thrashing about, Moth is not going anywhere soon.

RATING 7 / 10