Three likable loafers half-heartedly try to get their lives together in “Emigrants,” a Bulgarian comedy of manners that’s beautifully crafted at every level before dramatically jumping the tracks in its third act. Film won a combined acting award for the lead trio, plus best Bulgarian film, at the 2002 Varna national fest, as well as the Audience Award for best local feature at the recent Sofia fest. Though some offshore activity is certainly deserved, it’s a major pity the movie stumbles in the final lap.
The three unemployed buddies, who hang out at the end of an airport runway, have a spiritual disconnect with their own country, as well as a desire to better themselves — even if they’re not really sure how. Muro (Ivan Radoev) wants to be a writer, Shpera (Deyan Donkov) would like to emigrate to Argentina, and Yuri (Valeri Yordanov) is thinking of becoming a cop.
Pic immediately grabs the attention with its quiet stylishness and loaded dialogue, notable from the opening scene as Muro wakes up to a phone call from Yuri and the viewer sees first a woman in bed next to him and then another, fully clothed woman watching them. The latter, Svetla (Paraskeva Dzhukelova), turns out to be Muro’s wife, and the former, Elena (Margita Gosheva), her best friend. With a restraint that clothes her venom in charity, Svetla calmly tells the panicked Elena to get back in bed, as she wants to preserve her love for both of them.
Scene sets the comic tone of the whole first hour, as the pic also rapidly sketches the other two ne’er-do-wells. Yuri has a combative relationship with his sister, Nela (Nona Yotova), who’s married to a policeman, and uses their home as a glorified hotel.
Musician Shpera does likewise with the apartment of his g.f., Mariella (Antoaneta Dobreva-Neti), and her mother, who thinks he’s a bum. In a lovely sequence that sums up the movie’s charm, Shpera wins the mother round by playing Chopin on her lounge piano.
The pals seem to get by on odd jobs. They sign on to unload train cargo and end up outwitting their gypsy bosses. Sequence works in general terms as a comic escapade, though its undercurrents are rather vague for non-Bulgarian auds.
The script by co-director Lyudmil Todorov (“Emilia’s Friends,” 1996) gently slides into its second act as the friends are successively put on the spot by their women. In addition to the agreeably planned feel to the pic and the deliciously playful performances, there’s a laid-back chemistry between the three male leads that makes the whole confection jell. However, just when the viewer is getting ready for the script’s third act, the movie veers off into an unrelated direction, in which the trio is invited by a mysterious phone call to go to a swank hotel outside town.
Film’s underlying commentary on the country’s historical crossroads, as it prepares to enter the EU, is expressed when the lads stop off on the way for a swim. As Shpera notes, “We’re on our way to Europe, and our Bulgarian shit has to smell like theirs, nice and sweet.”
The startling change in tone — which also ditches most of the previous cast — is as if Todorov either had no idea how to develop his characters any more or was suddenly asked to pad out an almost perfect hour-long pic to feature length. Whatever the reason, it’s the most startling reversal in a movie’s quality and control since the final act of “Adaptation.”
Tech credits are on a par with the fine performances, with kudos to the sharp lensing by Stefan Ivanov.