Alternately delightful and disturbing.
Alternately delightful and disturbing, “The Mosquito Problem & Other Stories” features characters who would do Christopher Guest proud, but at its core lies a troubling legacy that gives genuine meaning and context to everything else. Ostensibly a genial look at the town of Belene, situated on the Danube in northern Bulgaria, there’s a slumbering heart of darkness thanks to the notorious Communist-era concentration camp that gives the place less than idyllic connotations for fellow countrymen. Helmer Andrey Paounov’s delicious eye for absurdity never bests his deep respect for the entire range of the human experience. Fests will jump.
Initially, tone is similar to Paounov’s marvelously quirky first docu, “Georgi and the Butterflies,” with which it shares a puckish delight in the eccentric as well as a terrific understanding of how to frame the unexpected. Pic opens with an exterminator’s truck sending out billowing clouds of white fumes along the quiet streets, shot as if the helmer choreographed the smoke itself.
Everyone talks about the mosquito problem, especially acute in the flood-prone Danube delta. For one couple, shot like a Bulgarian version of “American Gothic,” some relief comes from sucking up the air with a large vacuum tube, demonstrated with amused aplomb. Other townsfolk include a piano tuner with a taste for boogie-woogie and Chopin, a dance instructor, an Italian priest, and the sole Cuban left over from the initial efforts more than 20 years ago to construct a nuclear power plant.
There are drunken hunters, pom-pom girls and the ex-mayor, who had Belene upgraded from a town to a city. Standing proudly before the camera, his torso criss-crossed with cartridge rounds and sporting a large rifle, the former mayor’s pride makes him an appealing character until it’s revealed he was the superintendent of the nearby forced labor camp.
Paounov slowly introduces this element to the story, though the way he allows the camera to continue rolling a few seconds after people speak makes it seem that there’s something unstated behind everyone’s mosquito talk. The real shift comes when he edits in an official 1992 interview with Julia Ruzhgeva, a former guard convicted of manslaughter, which she denies.
The docu isn’t looking for answers — it’s enough to pose the question and expand the discourse. Ruzhgeva’s daughter speaks of the weight of that accusation and conviction, putting the former guard into the role of mother and not killer. Obviously fascinated with the complexity of the human character, Paounov thankfully leaves the psychologizing to others.
How to introduce this element to the film and not crush its witty appeal isn’t easy; in a work-in-progress version some elements were arranged in different sequences, and it’s clear Paounov has spent a long time editing and re-editing to achieve a balance. The earlier version opened with a greater sense of energy, which now takes longer to build, and length could be cut to tighten it all up. He’s blessed with a fantastic finale, set to a Shostakovich waltz, showing kids frolicking in the exterminator truck’s fumes as if the Pied Piper himself were pumping out all that noxious gas.