The quiet despair of directionless souls could be a dreary subject in the hands of a lesser novice, but Kamen Kalev’s “Eastern Plays” is an honest, skillful rumination on the search for inner and outer connections. While the storylines of two existentially adrift brothers aren’t always well integrated, Kalev brings a fine ear for dialogue and an unsentimental warmth to this personal tale, making for an impressive debut that ends on a surprisingly hopeful note. A long and fruitful fest life is assured, with even a chance for modest Euro arthouse play.
The bleak apartment blocs on the outskirts of Sofia, Bulgaria, are home to Georgi (Ovanes Torosian), a troubled teen dabbling in skinhead culture. Half-heartedly drawn to a violent racist clique by Fish (Chavdar Sokolov), Georgi is borderline disaffected, joining in when Drega (Alexander “The Indian” Radanov) leads a foreigner-bashing posse in an attack on a visiting Turkish family.
Stepping in to help the victims is Georgi’s largely estranged older brother Christo, known as Itso (Christo Christov). While Georgi opens the pic, this is Itso’s film in many ways. A former art student and sculptor, Itso just about gets through his days as a carpenter, supplementing a methadone dependency with multiple beers.
Itso pushes everyone away, especially g.f. Niki (Nikolina Yancheva), until he intervenes to help the Turkish family and connects with their daughter Isil (Saadet Isil Aksoy). Forming an unlikely yet thoroughly believable duo, these two are brought together by their mutual need for the kind of supportive humanity not found in their daily lives; they’re the only people who listen to each other when they speak. Beyond overcoming the objections of her mistrustful parents (well played by Hatice Aslan and Kerem Atabeyoglu), Itso needs to surface from his funk before he can reach for a future.
While both brothers are floundering in existential solitude, Itso projects a far deeper sense of being both lost and trapped. Perhaps it’s because tyro thesp Christov, an old friend of Kalev’s, was the basis for the script, and many details are taken directly from his life. Kalev’s sensitivity, combined with dialogue as truthful as it is natural, leaves no room for vampiric verisimilitude; while it comes as a shock to discover, in the end credits, that Christov tragically died last year, the entire film is suffused with poignant respect.
Less successful is a political subplot involving Drega accepting cash from a candidate to foment racist attacks; though undoubtedly based on fact, this belongs in a separate film. Kalev also seems to be searching too hard for ways to integrate the different strands.
All perfs are strong, but it’s Christov and Aksoy who linger in the memory. At first Itso seems an unappealing character, but his haunted quality and sense of decency, coupled with wrenching despair, quickly confound that superficial impression. Aksoy, so fine in Semih Kaplanoglu’s films “Egg” and “Milk,” is a striking presence, her external beauty enhanced by a palpable empathy.
Largely handheld lensing captures the characters’ unsettled cores, and the blowup from HD is flawless. Several scenes stand out for their emotional and technical honesty, including Itso’s conversation with a shrink (Ivan Vitkov), in which Christov, seen in shadow against a window, explains that he has the strength to get up, but nothing to hold onto.