Fillmofil.ba proudly represents the works of young critics done in program Talents Sarajevo of 25th Sarajevo Film Festival
Written by: Jovana Gjorgjiovska
According to the rule of three, a triad of elements is significantly more impactful than any other number of pieces, perfectly summed up in the Latin “omnetriumperfectum”: everything that comes in three is perfect. Bulgarian film director Stephan Komandarev’s latest feature film ROUNDS / V KRUG (2019), itself the second part of a trilogy, recently had its world premiere at the 25th edition of the Sarajevo Film Festival and won the Cineuropa Award, as well as the Best Actress jury prize for the only female lead in the film, Irini Jambonas. Strictly following the tripartite formula, the film is using returning plot elements to emphasize the circular structure of the general story. Komandarev draws a psycho-geographical map of the country’s capital Sofia at night, taking inspiration from real-life stories and diverse social issues (e.g. illegal migrant trafficking, bullying, people from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds, etc.).
On the night between the 9th and the 10th of November 2019, right before the 30-year anniversary of the fall of Communism, three police cars each with two officers on night patrol drive around Sofia. Although their routes intersect often, without giving spoilers away, the only real interaction between the three duos is via intermediary story elements such as the quest of one unsuspecting hero through the districts of each police team. By choosing three archetypical social relationships, writers Komandarev and Simeon Ventsislavov pose numerous important questions about one’s ethical stance in life.
The first pair of police officers has an almost father-and-son-like dynamic, portraying an inter-generational conflict between the need to obediently follow the rules without considering other options and the urge to adapt one’s actions to the current situation, even if that means breaking the police protocols. The next duo, conveniently composed of a male and a female officer, explores the many possible forms of modern love, ranging from unconventional and embarrassing romantic interactions to showing full support to one’s partner in especially difficult moments. Similarly, the final pair is focused on the nuances of present-day male friendship through the lens of conversations on trivial topics and a pronounced we-are-in-this-together attitude which starts a forced feedback loop, eventually leading to a delusional sense of invincibility and being above the law.
When it comes to the narrative of ROUNDS, the tripartite composition is evident both in the experiences of the six protagonists and the stories of the supporting characters they interact with. Although the overarching direction of the plot and its emphasis on crime can easily put ROUNDS in the category of noir, the feature also bears elements of post-noir such as the French polar and other films dealing with police corruption, as well as the road movie. Above that, each of the three narrative arcs pays homage to other genres.
Similar to the long-standing approach of frequent genre changes in Asian festival films, Komandarev and Ventsislavov start off with an effortlessly relatable dark comedy constructed upon Balkan history anecdotes and social stereotypes deeply entrenched in the Bulgarian society and the whole peninsula. After allowing the audience to develop a rapport with its main characters, ROUNDS then makes a subtle transition into a more complex territory where multifaceted questions about life, death, and moral cross-roads await. There are a few perplexing side-stories such as a professor who escapes a retirement home to go to a dilapidated cinema and a child walking home from chess practice getting brutally beaten on the street. Several emotional discoveries and a few extremely difficult decision-making moments build up tension in the second part, which is then effortlessly released in the film’s final act. The writers surprise the audience with another layer of comedy, albeit one that decidedly pushes the film’s (up to that point) realistic approach aside and leaves the viewer wondering of the veracity of the events in the previous parts.
The film’s fast-paced editing ensures the viewers have enough time to empathize with the police officers without mulling over the unfolding events for too long. This allows Komandarev to easily subvert the expectations of the audience and deliver the punch line of each story. Although at times it is hard to process the imagery, the shaky hand-held camera (Vesselin Hristov) and the subjective point-of-view shots give the spectators the impression that they are the third, invisible member of the night patrol, figuring out what is happening at the same time as the protagonists (and, on a side note: the third-team-member impression is yet another delicate nod to the rule of three).
As the film progresses, the strict following of this rule quickly leads to a monotonous rhythm and predictable moments of story/character development. Despite the social realism deeply woven into the stories tackled in ROUNDS and the raw performances of its cast, the film seems improbable simply because many of the characters’ decisions are made too quickly, without any consideration of their practical implications. This plot-driven style of decision-making rarely makes sense in the grand scheme of the protagonists’ character development, but it does allow for closing most of the story “loops” in the film.
Apart from driving home many comments on contemporary problems in the Bulgarian society, Komandarev uses circular storytelling to ask an even bigger question – has anything changed in the 30 years since the fall of Communism in November 1989, or are we witnessing a historical déjà-vu? The repetitive events portrayed in ROUNDS seem to point to the latter.