Following a splash with his Oscar-shortlisted “The World Is Big and Salvation Lurks Around the Corner,” helmer Stephan Komandarev makes a welcome return to his docu roots with “The Town of Badante Women.” Pic is a small-scale, affecting portrait of a locale in northwest Bulgaria where the women have largely ankled for better prospects abroad, leaving a community of single men looking after kids and the elderly. (“Badante” is an Italian term for a home aide or nanny.) This honest and moving cinematic essay should do well in nonfiction fest slots and on Euro cable.
Varshets was a chic watering hole in the communist era, but with the Soviet bloc’s collapse, the town took an economic nosedive. When Bulgaria joined the EU in 2007, thousands of workers suddenly had legal access to decent wages across the continent. Even earlier, however, quite a few illegally sought opportunities in the better-paying West.
Docu opens with a mother who can afford to make it back to her husband and kids in Varshets only twice a year — when she first returned home, even the dog didn’t recognize her. She’s a trained economist but now looks after a family in Italy while also trying to maintain her maternal role back in Bulgaria, especially to her young daughter, who bravely struggles not to break down on camera in one of several heartrending moments.
Komandarev maintains a good balance between male and female perspectives, concentrating on a few families while incorporating scenes of village life to emphasize the town-wide nature of the problem. None of the men are quite willing to discuss their feelings of inadequacy as breadwinners, though a few talk about their loneliness. The melancholy that has settled on the empty rooms in these half-full houses acts as a constant reminder of the missing spouses.
One of the wives admits the situation is hardest on her husband, and it comes as a shock to hear her say the family she cares for in Italy now means as much to her as her biological one. By documenting the situation in Varshets, Komandarev makes clear how economic necessities are fraying the bonds of community and family in the New Europe.
Expert editing weaves personal stories with general views of daily life, providing a feel for the town not as an architectural entity but a living organism now largely consisting of lonely men, the young and elderly. Lensing is crisp and clean, and music is atmospherically provided by the town’s own band of aging musicians and their chorus of older women.