Fundamentally downbeat, but still told with warmth and well-tuned perfs, Bulgarian drama “Monkeys in Winter” explores the lives of three mothers from separate generations facing bleak decisions. Helmer Milena Andonova’s grounding in shorts shows through in this, her feature debut, and yet a certain thematic harmony is achieved by pic’s subtle juxtapositions of the heroine’s different fates. Winner of top prize at Karlovy Vary’s competish for best Eastern European film, “Monkeys” should find shelter at further fests and could settle in niche and specialist distribution treetops in select territories, particularly south of the Danube and east of the Rhine.
Plots of the three strands are only glancingly related, with just settings and minor details shared. For instance, in both of the last two stories, characters watch a nature documentary on TV about monkeys protecting their young during a snowstorm. These simian images not only give pic its title but also provide ironic counterpoint to characters here who behave in so-called “unnatural” ways.
Opening segment, pic’s most straightforward, is set in 1961 and tracks Dona (Bulgarian thrush Bonka Ilieva-Boni), a lusty woman of Gypsy extraction, living in the suburbs outside the capital of Sofia and raising three kids by herself. Deserted by her b.f., and with bailiffs threatening to seize the family’s meager possessions, Dona accepts an offer from a local party official to match her with an elderly spouse. But when her vile new husband makes a move on her young daughter, Dona reacts with primal fury.
The story set in 1981 follows law student Lucretia (newcomer Diana Dobreva, whose long black hair and sorrowful eyes evoke a living Modigliani figure). In order to avoid being sent back to the sticks upon graduation, she tries to get herself knocked up by another student. When she really does get pregnant, however, her lack of faith in her b.f.’s love leads her to commit the aforementioned “unnatural” act out of fear he’ll leave her.
Final strand centers round Tana (local star Angelina Slavova), the wife of wealthy businessman Lazar, whose property development project just happens to involve destroying Dona’s now-derelict house. Happily in love, Tana and Lazar have everything except a child. When Lazar is told he’s infertile, everything turns sour.
Despite grim trajectory of every story, pic sports sparkly jet beads of black humor throughout that relieve gloom, for instance when both Lucretia and Tana visit the same sex clinic where a robustly rude receptionist humiliates them both. Use of 40-year time span lightly underscores how women’s lives in Bulgarian society have both changed and not changed with the fall of Communism.
Pro craft contributions ensure each segment has a different visual texture and rhythm above and beyond the use of period details.