Tuesday, April 17, 2018

221. Bulgarian director Stephan Komandarev’s film “Posoki” (Directions) (2017): Has God indeed left Bulgaria along with a third of its population, to quote a character in the film?

Directions could be described as Central Europe’s companion piece to the celebrated Argentine 2014 black comedy and film anthology Wild Tales. Both are portmanteau films that deal with contemporary economic and social concerns of the middle class in their respective global geographies. Both films make you laugh at times, only to present a more somber appraisal of reality. 

There is a virtual bond between Stephen Komandarev and Argentine director Damian Szifron, even though they might not have met each other or even seen each other’s works. While Szifron’s film gave us six stand-alone original tales written by the film director himself, Komandarev’s film is about six taxi drivers’ diverse actions as they drive their taxis in Bulgaria’s capital Sofia, also original tales co-scripted by the Bulgarian director with Simeon Ventsislavov.  Szifron’s Argentine film, in the director own words, was about “law abiding citizens who face difficulty in making money and do so many things we are not interested in…a lot of people get depressed and some explode and this is a film about those who explode.” Komandarev’s film, too, is about some people who “explode” and some others who choose alternate solutions, when faced with economic and social difficulties in leading an honest life, by helping those who need help, whether it is humans or animals, and even undertaking a second unrelated occupation to make ends meet.

Trying to resolve financial problems in ways he knows best

US film director Jim Jarmusch had made a somewhat parallel film in 1991 presenting five taxi drivers in five cities in a film called Night on Earth. Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi used the same template in his 2015 film Taxi with a single taxi driver (Panahi himself) interacting with various customers in Teheran.

Directions is a film that presents the sad reality of Bulgaria’s post-Communist, post-Glasnost society, where the pessimists have fled the country for greener pastures and the optimists have stayed on, despite growing corruption, rising costs of living and persistent  Communist mentality of the past. People work hard to earn honest wages–yet they suffer heart attacks and end up leading lonely lives. Prostitution is rampant as young girls want to live on the fast lane despite elders advising them to change.

A schoolgirl takes a ride

All the taxi drivers in Directions drive their taxis due to their economic and social compulsions.  One of the taxi drivers is a middle-aged woman whose economic plight might have hinged on an event during her university days when she refused the sexual advances of a man who a decade later is wealthy and based in Austria but fails to recognize her in the present avatar of the taxi driver. Another is an Orthodox priest driving a taxi in the night to augment his income, an unusual scenario elsewhere in the world. One might laugh at certain situations the film’s script offers but overall the film is pessimistic with a dash of religion thrown in. Even the dead drive taxis in this film, in the epilogue.

From start to finish, the underlying commentary is on earning money to survive in modern Bulgaria. A taxi driver uses his wiles to stop a man who has called his taxi for a ride before attempting  to jump off a bridge, ostensibly to get his precious fare that would be lost if the man does jump off.  But the segment reveals other unusual contemporary social problems—the man is a philosophy teacher living alone whose students have made fun of him on Facebook that leads him to think of ending his life.  What follows are uplifting and witty interactions between him and the taxi driver. The film Directions proves that the Bulgarian taxi drivers have a heart of gold and are not merely focused on making money.

Loneliness, poverty, Facebook and a taxi driver make an interesting cocktail
in this suicide attempt

Unlike most European films, Bulgarian cinema gives a lot of importance to family ties. A father lives for his daughter’s future. One episode of the film is on a father bemoaning the loss of his son, a loss he cannot tide over. He projects his love for his dead son by feeding a stray dog each night.

...and taxi drivers who take revenge for what led them to a life of a taxi driver

There are suicidal characters. There are characters who commit adultery. There are others who take revenge on those who have made their life miserable in the distant past (as in the opening segment of Wild Tales).  Opposing the negativism are the generous individuals who drive taxis in Sofia not merely for money but extending a helping hand when required to those in trouble—young school girls, old and sick bachelors who need medical and financial help, and suicidal teachers with little or no family to fall back on during stress.

Taxi drivers who help the sick and lonely to reach their destinations

Komandarev’s film strings the beads of the stand-alone episodes in a commendable manner to give us a lovely Bulgarian necklace, unlike its Argentine counterpart. The first episode ends with a taxi driver that is brain dead. Many of the later episodes have other taxi drivers listening to the news of that unfortunate incident. Another middle episode has a taxi driver taking a famous heart surgeon rushing to undertake a last operation in Bulgaria before he emigrates to greener pastures. Later in the film, you have a unemployed and lonely baker having to call a taxi to take him to hospital where he has been told they have a heart available for transplant that would suit him. The viewer has to string the not-so-obvious beads of the necklace.

Taxi drivers who care about stray animals as much as their own family

Where does religion fit into all this? At the obvious level, there is an Orthodox priest moonlighting as a taxi driver with a cross dangling on his chest.  The epilogue of the dead taxi driver continuing his trade and caring for his daughter after death is another. The interesting philosophical conversation between the priest-turned-taxi-driver and his passenger on the way to get a new heart at the hospital is a highlight of the film.

An Orthodox priest moonlights as a taxi driver

More than religion, it is the sad state of Bulgarian family life that is laid bare. Husbands cheat on wives. Many men lead lonely lives of bachelorhood. School girls grow up in the absence of their biological mothers and some take to prostitution. And yet unlike other parts of Europe, Directions seem to be a soulful cry from those who have stayed put in Bulgaria wistfully harking back to their social and religious traditions of old, amidst the ruins.

P.S. Directions is one of the author’s top 10 films of 2017. It won the best screenplay award at the Gijon International Film Festival and was picked to participate in the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival. Two films mentioned in the above review, the Argentine film Wild Tales (2014) and the Iranian film Taxi (2015) have been reviewed earlier on this blog. (Click on the name of the film in this post-script for a quick access to those reviews on this blog.)