Bulgaria's Oscar submission meshes domestic drama with Europe's refugee crisis, but gives the immigrants short shrift.
The sins of the father come home to roost — at times a little drowsily — in “The Judgment,” a solemn, sincere slab of Eastern European domestic miserablism addressing the paired crises of economic downturn and illegal immigration. The stabs at social consciousness in Bulgarian helmer Stephan Komandarev’s film, however, pierce less deeply than the classical father-son melodrama at its heart. The immigrants in question remain a wholly anonymous plot device, arguably underlining the more privileged European public’s indifference to the issue, but muffling the pic’s human impact. Submitted as Bulgaria’s foreign-language Oscar entry but missing the pre-nomination shortlist (unlike Komandarev’s 2009 film “The World Is Big and Salvation Lurks Around the Corner”), this well-traveled fest item will count on its political topicality in the distribution game.
Though “The Judgment’s” festival premiere preceded the international headlines prompted last year by the Syrian refugee crisis, Komandarev’s film nonetheless feels distinctly of the moment. The pic is set on a remote mountainous stretch of the Greek-Bulgarian border which, we learn, is a permeable access point to Europe for many of those fleeing the Middle East and Africa. Even if that specific national context seems unfamiliar, this unhappy morality tale fits neatly into the border-control conversation currently being had across the Continent.
But in telling his story from the inside — focusing on those abetting the immigrants, with varying degrees of compassion, rather than the immigrants themselves — Komandarev gives his narrative staggered levels of tragedy. Protagonist Mityo (Assen Blatechki, playing the quiet exhaustion of loss throughout) certainly has it better than the nameless outsiders risking life and limb to enter his country, but personal tragedy and international economic collapse haven’t left him that many blessings to count: Shortly after the death of his wife, he loses his job when the dairy for which he works is forced to close. Krasimir Andonov’s stately widescreen lensing — lingering on the territory’s ravishing forested peaks — does little to disguise a barren socioeconomic landscape in which even such fundamentals as milk production are under threat.
Hamstrung by debt, with his house facing foreclosure, Mityo reluctantly agrees to work for the Captain (Predrag Manojlovic), a former communist military man turned illegal immigrant trafficker. (In a skewed sense, “The Judgment” plays as a politicized Euro twist on Ramin Bahrani’s recent “99 Homes.”) As he smuggles petrified refugees across the border in his former milk truck, Mityo is haunted by flashbacks to misdeeds committed under the same Captain’s command during his time as border guard — marked by a deathly ravine that lends the film its title — in the 1980s. Yet Mityo keeps his past and present actions alike hidden from his adolescent son Vasko (Ovanes Torosian, surly intensity steaming from his sharp, pale features), who regards his father with quite enough contempt already.
Beneath the film’s more timely trappings, it’s this thorny family dynamic — which could play out in any era or locale — that most interests Komandarev and his co-writers, as private burdens are unpacked and shared, and father and son gain a stronger, sadder understanding of each other. Blatechki and Torosian are most affecting as they enact the pair’s awkward dance of inarticulate affection and hostile dependency, but the pic doesn’t satisfyingly integrate this intimate struggle with the more far-reaching tumult in the background.
Though Komandarev has previously made documentary work on the subject, the border-crossing sequences are the film’s most patiently contrived: Amped-up scoring and sudden, stormy narrative obstacles aim to boost already high stakes, though the pacing isn’t always as urgent as the events on screen. A third-act lurch into pure melodrama outlines heroes and villains with needless black-and-white exactitude, while granting little color at all to the refugees caught in the crevice.
For the racist, reactionary Captain, Bulgaria’s immigration problem is a grim corrective to its emigration one, as young citizens flee their homeland to seek work in Western Europe: “Since Bulgarians won’t stay here, I’ll fill this country with scum,” he spits, though the pic’s vague characterization of the immigrants hardly offers them a defense. If “The Judgment” finally wants for rigor and nuance, this Bulgarian-German-Macedonian-Croatian co-production nonetheless reps a gracefully crafted statement on a topic that is going to yield no shortage of films — some subtler than this one, many far less so — on the fest circuit in the near future.