Touted as the biggest Bulgarian co-production since the fall of communism, “The World Is Big and Salvation Lurks Around the Corner” is a sweet, old-fashioned intergenerational drama whose uneven pitch distracts from genuinely beautiful moments. Based on the award-winning novel by Ilija Trojanov, tale of an amnesiac helped toward recovery by his charismatic grandfather encompasses over 30 years of social and identity crises, bringing inner and outer journeys to converge somewhere beyond the realm of believability. Local play will hit sympathetic chords (pic unsurprisingly won best Bulgarian feature at the Sofia fest), though theatrical release outside the Balkans is unlikely.
Opening momentum sets a pacey tone not always maintained, as sophomore helmer Stefan Komandarev channels an early Kusturica feel while introducing characters “somewhere in the Balkans, where Europe ends but never starts.” Alexander, or Sashko, comes into the world in 1975, the adored son of Vasko (Hristo Mutafchiev) and Yana (Ana Papadopulu). Completing the tight-knit family are Yana’s parents, Sladka (Lyudmila Cheshmedzhieva) and backgammon-obsessed Bai Dan (Miki Manojlovic).
By the early 1980s, authorities are increasingly suspicious of Bai Dan’s jocular attitude toward the regime, and Vasko, under pressure to start spying on his father-in-law, tells Yana and Sashko (Blagovest Mutafchiev) that the three of them must emigrate. Journeying from Bulgaria to Yugoslavia, they sneak across the Italian border and are placed in a refugee camp, awaiting visas to Germany.
Flash forward to the present — the storyline has been shuttling back and forth from the start — and the adult Sashko (Carlo Ljubek) survives a car crash (nicely handled) that kills his parents. Recovery in a Leipzig hospital is swift for everything but his memory, so Bai Dan turns up with some tough love and the crazy idea of traveling back to Bulgaria on a bicycle built for two.
Backgammon is used as both a plot device and a metaphor, refocusing Sashko’s mind and emblematic of honesty and correctitude: “We don’t play for money, only for honor.” Komandarev isn’t heavy-handed with his symbolism, using the game as much for the sense of community it fosters as for any lessons it imparts.
Frequent flashbacks unfortunately fragment the story into pieces that don’t always stylistically flow together: Script would have been better ditching about 10 minutes for a tighter focus.
The family’s sketchy flight across the border and the bicycle ride that takes up pic’s second half both strain credibility. A 70-something grandfather cycling across most of central Europe is awfully hard to believe, though the always watchable Manojlovic exudes enough energy and warmth to almost make the improbabilities, and stickiness, acceptable. He’s nicely paired with Ljubek, an appealing presence gamely trying to make the hoary amnesia formula work.
Though uneven, visuals are a strong suit: A lovely match cut between an overhead shot of Sashko on a bench and a children’s book illustration makes clear that Komandarev, returning to fiction features after his 2001 “Dogs’ Home,” has a talent that just needs tightening. Flashback sequences are shot with a softer look, while production design further emphasizes a pristine, quasi-mythical Bulgarian village where characters can almost be heard repeating “There’s no place like home.”