Rarely does a debut feature come along with the visual and narrative confidence of “Thirst,” a beautifully crafted, subtly told story of two very different teens hesitantly coming together in Bulgaria’s rural southwest. Directed with arresting yet subtle flair by Svetla Tsotsorkova, whose affinity for minimal dialogue elides with her careful attention to how people observe each other, the film combines chamber-piece elements with sensitivity to landscape, light and shadow. Though Bulgarian pics rarely get international releases, “Thirst” deserves more than fest exposure, and should see at least limited Euro arthouse play.
From the first fixed-camera shot, it’s clear Tsotsorkova knows exactly what she’s doing: A teen boy (Alexander Benev) appears in the distance, jogging along a winding path. The road dips, he disappears, and the viewer waits expectantly for him to resurface when he reaches the top of the rise. Patience is rewarded, and attentive audiences immediately understand they should be carefully watching how and why scenes play out.
None of the characters is named (usually an annoying contrivance, but acceptable here). The boy lives with his bookish father (Ivaylo Hristov) and hard-working mother (Svetlana Yancheva) at the top of a hill. She washes the bed linens for hotels in town, but water is unreliable at best, so they pay a man (Vassil Mihajlov) and his teen daughter (Monika Naydenova), a water diviner, to locate an underground spring on the property. The girl is one tough cookie, played with astonishing swagger by Naydenova, a real find. Exuding a combative air that keeps everyone at a distance, she unnerves the family, though the boy, far less self-assured than she, is fascinated.
His mother is impatient with the digging — well, impatient with her life, really. Rarely smiling, always doing the drudge work, she is the key to the family’s existence. Her husband survived a heart attack several years earlier, and it’s made him overly cautious, though it could also be a crutch he uses to avoid too much involvement. The boy is a good son, helpful to his mother, obedient to his father, but also isolated in these summer months, so the girl’s sudden presence is a jolt out of the mundane.
In truth, nothing much happens in “Thirst,” at least not in a major key. There’s a big storm, which breaks the film’s reserve and allows for a small moment of catharsis, but Tsotsorkova is most interested in character studies, and the ways people change in nearly imperceptible yet irrevocable ways. She also fills the film with memorable moments: the mother and the girl’s father searching in the dark with flashlights, or mother and son dancing among the drying sheets. Plenty of films have used scenes of flapping bed linens, but Tsotsorkova’s eye for the undemonstratively poetic turns something almost commonplace into a reflection of mood.
Casting is flawless, from pros like Yancheva and Hristov, capturing divergent aspects of world-weariness, to newcomers Benev and Naydenova. While her character makes more of an impact — few will forget her challenging stare — his quiet, unsophisticated intensity doesn’t go unnoticed. The same is true for the way the director gives emphasis to how and where people look, through window and doors, observing each other with wariness or curiosity or attraction. Gazes can be a challenge, as with the girl, or, with the others, a complex mix of feelings.
Vesselin Hristov’s widescreen lensing is accomplished but not showy, attuned to beautiful compositions without making them feel apart from the story. The summer light is important in the way it beats down, heating the ground and its inhabitants, and color grading is top-notch. Some viewers may feel the flare-up at the end is a bit forced, but it also provides a kind of destructive release from the hothouse atmosphere.