A black chapter in recent Bulgarian history is explored more with righteous sympathy than real power in “Stolen Eyes,” a promising movie that tries to blend too many disparate elements. While ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia was making headlines, Bulgaria’s last communist rulers were forcing ethnic Turks to give up their identities. Pic follows a young Muslim widow — the excellent Vessela Kazakova (“Mila from Mars”) — and the Bulgarian soldier who’s smitten with her. Having won best Bulgarian feature award at the Sofia fest, pic could garner some fest exposure, despite its several flaws.
In the late ’80s, Bulgarian strongman Todor Zhivkov declared a program of “national regeneration,” in which the substantial Turkish minority was forced to change names, forbidden to show outward signs of ethnicity and outlawed from speaking Turkish. Anyone not complying was escorted to the border, which is at first open, then closed by the Turks due to swelling refugee camps. This is where “Stolen Eyes” begins, in 1989, with Aiten (Kazakova) and her brother, Halil (Nejat Isler), waiting to cross into Turkey.
Film then flashes back to soon after the laws have been announced. Young Bulgarian soldier Ivan (Valeri Yordanov) is put in charge of the official seals needed to certify name changes on newly issued identity cards. Aiten, a teacher, pretends to seduce Ivan in order to steal the seals, but he disarms her and in the process becomes fascinated by her courage and conviction.
Determined to continue protesting the government’s identity rape, Aiten forcibly reopens a mosque and leads a group of women to block the army from entering the village. Ivan is the reluctant driver of the tank, and tragedy strikes when Aiten’s daughter gets lost in the crowd and falls under the tank treads.
Traumatized Ivan is put in an institution, where he obsessively paints Aiten’s eyes. She, too, is in the same hospital, but is unwilling to encourage the relationship he desires. After being discharged, Aiten is joined by her brother, and they head for the Turkish border, where the narrative began. But there’s still one more stanza of the drama left to play.
Pic is at its best in early scenes showing the profound humiliation of people whose identities are literally effaced from the record. In later reels, director Spassov wastes way too much footage on silly scenes in the psychiatric institution, plus some discordantly light sequences near the end.
Still, performances are faultless. Yordanov, previously seen to advantage in “Emigrants,” here shows great sensitivity as the hesitant young soldier whose deep humanity leaves him unshielded from the horrors he’s forced to perpetrate. Similarly, Kazakova is both touching and fierce as the defiant woman determined to keep her name and traditions. Better known as a d.p., helmer Spassov shows an eye for artistic compositions, and lensing by Plamen Somov is always attractive.