In Glory (Slava) — a biting, tightly woven 21st century parable on how social media optics reign over virtuousness —a Bulgarian railway lineman with a severe speech impediment suffers humiliation and personal loss after performing a simple, honest act.
His name is Tsanko Petrov (Stefan Denolyubov), and he lives a rustic existence where he cares for rabbits and listens to the radio. Petrov’s secluded lifestyle is is abruptly disrupted when he spots a heap of money splayed across an isolated stretch of railroad track and decides without hesitation to return the money to the corrupt Bulgarian Ministry of Transport.
Immediately, a”no good deed goes unpunished” story emerges. The “punisher”, so to speak, is the ministry’s unscrupulous public relations executive Julia Staykova (Margita Gosheva), who sees Petrov’s honesty as a terrific spin story. She exploits Petrov with a humiliating interview (which 12,000 viewers are “amused” by), and sets up a comically insincere ceremony where she badgers the polite-to-a-fault hermit to temporarily relinquish his timepiece — a family heirloom — in order to give a cheap digital watch reward the appearance of unique value for the cameras. When Staykova loses the heirloom, Petrov won’t relent until he gets it back, even if it means exposing the ministry’s internal crime wave.
Glory has all the underpinnings of a predictably slow burn, linear mainstream tragedy. But when compared to traditional patriotic cinema like Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Glory‘s stark, incisive satirical commentary on modern politics becomes quite remarkable.
In Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), a naïve populist interim senator, Jefferson Smith (Jimmy Stewart), butts heads with jaded Congressmen who slander his name to protect their pork barrel legislation. Ultimately, an assumed American ideal shines forth through Smith’s relentless patriotism, boyish good looks, and stirring rhetoric.
Glory strips itself clean of this outdated, glossy approach. Tsanko Petrov is no Jefferson Smith; he doesn’t have Smith’s looks, his panache, or the ability to deliver a fiery filibuster. Petrov — played by Denolyubov with an appropriately one-note solemnity throughout — is merely decent, and thus not much use as a “hero”, particularly in an age when one’s heroism is heavily determined by social media optics.
Stefan Denolyubov in Glory (Slava) (GloryTheFilm.com)
Consider how Staykova and her chic minions hoarsely laugh in their conference room when they first see Petrov stutter on the camera. It is a terrific “fly on the wall” scene which has a cinéma vérité feel, evoking a palpable fear about P.R. wizards who influence public opinion on everything from what car to buy to which government officials to elect. Chillingly, the scene recalls how President Donald Trump won the US Presidential election of 2016 in spite of making fun of a disabled reporter during a campaign speech.
Petrov’s severe speech impediment is an effective metaphor for our current culture’s ferocious pace toward a a class structure where tech-connected, chic-and-gluten-free homogenization rule over everyone else who refuses to or simply cannot assimilate into our 21st Century social media-based economy. Indeed, Petrov struggles to get his watch back not so much because it has proven itself to be hard to find, but because Staykova dismisses Petrov as optically worthless, and thus, a waste of time.
Staykova privately insults Petrov as “retarded”. Later in the film, when Petrov persists, Staykova unleashes a furious tirade of threats to have him arrested. The energy she expends to tell off a rural working class man — rather than calmly express remorse and promise to look for his watch — is the stuff of classist psychosis, where hyper-aggression against a perceived underling is a per se response no matter how small the issue.
However, Staykova cannot so easily be castoff as a villain. Margita Gosheva plays Staykova with such a tightly coiled nerviness — as if her flesh was synced to her Android’s social media alerts — that Staykova feels oddly relatable despite her behavior.
Since 2012, the amount of time people spend on their smartphones has spiked dramatically, in part because work emails, texts, and by-the-second news cycles have eviscerated the lines between office and home; between escapism and information fixation. There’s a physical tension to this kind of existence which Staykova captures, and in so doing, she often comes across not as a stock villain, but a modern white collar career professional whose obsessive-compulsive smartphone usage has taken her over the edge.
Staykova’s character is also a refreshing response to traditional stereotypes perpetuated in other highly successful films about female careerists. Unlike Michael Clayton‘s panicky in-house counsel Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton), or The Intern‘s overly apologetic “workaholic” business owner Jules Ostin (Anne Hathaway), Staykova firmly owns her ambition.
In easily the film’s biggest surprise, Glory‘s third act kicks off with a “film within the film”, in which Staykova is about to undergo a delicate fertilization procedure. Staykova’s hunched in a room, a portrait of ambivalence, while other patients dutifully engage in personal pregnancy stories. Staykova’s face only comes to life when she comes across a televised broadcast on the ministry’s newest scandal. She is soon in a cab, defying her doctor’s and her husband’s every wish, brazenly commanding orders over her smartphone to conduct another spin story.
The sequence is a masterful blurring of the line between immorality, unethical behavior, and self-actualization for a female professional who challenges the patriarchal convention that motherhood must always be the first thing on her mind. But Glory‘s strongest scene also highlights a major problem in contemporary cinema, as it takes a self-actualized but ultimately immoral Staykova to conversely highlight the lack of quietly complex, well-defined female professional heroines that audiences can fully embrace. In this regard, Glory is a grave signal not only on the ethical pitfalls of social media, but a meta-commentary on cinema’s current lack of stories about heroic modern female professionals.
Extras on Film Movement’s Blu-ray: Helium, director Anders Walter’s 2013 Academy Award winning short film about a hospital janitor who tells stories of a magical universe for a terminal ill boy, is the lone addition to the disc. Helium is a heart achingly beautiful blend of childhood whimsy and sadness, and thus best viewed a few hours after Glory‘s bitter aftertaste fades.