Film Review: Boston Jewish Film Festival — A Powerful “Bulgarian Rhapsody”

The history lesson embedded in Bulgarian Rhapsody is subtle yet also packs a wallop.

Bulgarian Rhapsody, directed by Ivan Nitchev. At the Boston Jewish Film Festival, screening on November 7 and 8. Check the website for times and locations.

A scene from "Bulgarian Rhapsody."

A scene from “Bulgarian Rhapsody.”

By Paul Dervis

Bulgarian Rhapsody puts the foolishness of youth on a collision course with one of the monumental tragedies of the 20th century.

This is a seemingly formulaic film, a coming-of-age parable where the members of a small group of Jewish teenagers explore their sexuality under the cloud of spreading Nazism in this Eastern European country.

Of course, this kind of adolescent sensuality in the shadow of brutal violence has been done before, and the film’s early scenes definitely have a retread quality. Young boy falls for the granddaughter of his Bubbe’s old flame at a seaside resort. She is independent, flirty, and always in control; a pre-war feminist one would say. And he, ever so shy, rolls with it. Sounds a bit predictable, you say?…but it isn’t.

The dynamics of the interrelationships among the teens keeps this film fresh. It turns out that nobody’s perfect; certainly not in this group. Our closest friends are capable of delivering some pretty harsh blows. However, when it really matters, love, in all its manifestations, connects rather than divides.

Moni is a young Jewish boy living an austere life in Sofia with his angry father, Moiz, and matriarchal grandmother, Fortune. His older sister is in love with the son of a former friend of Moiz’s, a man he has been feuding with for decades. The old man refuses to allow the marriage and ships the kids off to the Greek city of Kavala with Bubbe, who is supposed to find an appropriate spouse for the girl. They come home empty handed, but it turns out that in Kavala Moni fell in love.

Her name is Shelli and she is a free spirit in the mode of Cabaret‘s Sally Bowles. A smile and a laugh come easily to this carefree lass, and she seems to like Moni as well…but she can not be harnessed by the boy. In fact, her reluctance is a big part of the attraction.

It turns out that Moni’s sister is pregnant with her boyfriend’s child. And when it comes down to it, Moiz is all bark and no bite—he acquiesces to the marriage. Shelli comes to the wedding, Fortune’s great love in tow. There she meets Jojo, Moni’s best friend. Jojo is a gentile, the son of a driver who works for the growing Nazi presence in Sofia. But Jojo is no anti-Semite. He bonded with Moni early on because both were left motherless in childhood.

Jojo is a player, and he is as gregarious as his chum is shy. He puts the moves on Shelli and she responds in kind. The competitive conflict this stokes is familiar. Yet once the festivities are over Shelli goes home and she is all but forgotten by Jojo.

Not so Shelli. She writes to him repeatedly, but Jojo doesn’t answer. Moni, still love struck, plays Cyrano to her, writing poetry under Jojo’s nom de plume.

But the war is creeping further and further into their young lives, and the ending of this film becomes very difficult to watch.

The history lesson embedded in this story is subtle yet also packs a wallop. The slow erosion of good will, the shocking spectacle of sympathetic people turning indifferent is profoundly troubling. It is understandable that historical upheaval drives average citizens to do terrible things in order to survive, yet witnessing the destruction of harmony, seeing people turn their back on their fellow man, is haunting. The betrayal not only foreshadows the doom of our youthful leads, but their entire community.

The young actors, all born at least a half century after these events, bring an admirable sense of empathy to their dramatization of traumatic issues. They all give marvelous performances. Kristiyan Makarov’s Moni is heartbreaking, even when he is silent. His eyes are exquisitely soulful. Stefan Popov, as Jojo, seamlessly transforms from honorable friend to utter cad to unpredictable hero. Both of these powerful young actors, astonishingly, are making their feature film debuts.

But it is Anjela Nedyalkova’s Shelli that lifts this film above the typical teen maturing fare. The actress does not come off as emotionally manipulative in a Hollywood way, tugging at our heartstrings. This actress moves us naturally, organically. It is difficult not to feel Moni’s pain when she treats him with callousness. It is also hard not to cry at her ultimate helplessness.

Director Ivan Nitchev expertly handles this historical drama. He masterfully intertwines the internal conflicts of youth with the conflagrations of a horrendous time. That he manages to generate such indelible images of innocence and fragility from a cast of what must be seen as amateurs is amazing.

Go see Bulgarian Rhapsody …but bring your handkerchiefs.

On an alternative cinematic note, for those of you who were fans of CoverField, this year’s Audience Award winner at the Jerusalem Film Festival—Jeruzalemwill be right up your alley. The Paz brothers, Doron and Yaov (Israel’s answer to the Coen brothers?) are exploring the kind of cinéma vérité that Matt Reeves created for his 2008 semi-spoof handheld horror flick, though this time around the Paz brothers are not quite successful at mastering the technique.

A couple of Americans come to Jerusalem and their timing couldn’t be worse. It stars Yael Grobglas, whom fans will recognize as a cast member on the popular Jane the Virgin TV show.

If this is your kind of thing, don’t procrastinate…it only plays this Saturday and Sunday at the BJFF.

Paul Dervis has been teaching drama in Canada at Algonquin College as well as the theatre conservatory Ottawa School of Speech & Drama for the past 15 years. Previously he ran theatre companies in Boston, New York, and Montreal. He has directed over 150 stage productions, receiving two dozen awards for his work. Paul has also directed six films, the most recent being 2011’s The Righteous Tithe.

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