Co-directors Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov’s “Glory” confirms the advanced promise shown in their award-winning narrative debut, “The Lesson.” Largely working with the same exceptionally talented cast and crew, the duo paints a damning portrait of contemporary Bulgarian society fragmented by class and the rural-urban divide, where corruption is a given and even muckrakers ignore the human quotient in their politicized race to bring down their targets. Shot with flexible naturalism by Krum Rodriguez (DP on “Victoria” as well as “The Lesson”), the film quietly builds to a feeling of inexorable disaster, guided by terrific performances as well as spot-on editing. Festivals will be sure to offer welcoming slots in their programs, followed by a likely limited European art-house run.
“Glory” is an exact translation for the Russian watch brand Slava, though the title is meant to resonate beyond the beloved timepiece. The importance of time is a key element in the film, as multiple clocks — biological as well as temporal — are inescapably present from the opening moment, when a voice announces the time down to the second. As railroad linesman, Tsanko Petrov (Stefan Denolyubov) assures his watch is accurate, he listens with half an ear to the TV and a report on government corruption; these two form the main themes of “Glory,” radiating toward a fateful dark conclusion.
Honest Tsanko, looking like a graying unmade bed and saddled with a major stutter, finds a couple of large-denomination bills worth approximately $85 on the rails. Since he earns only about twice that amount each month, it could be considered quite a windfall, but then he sees a great pile of dumped cash, and he reports it to the police. The Ministry of Transport is thrilled to use Tsanko’s good deed as an opportunity to combat perceptions of in-house corruption by staging an award for the upright railwayman.
The ministry’s PR chief, Julia Staikova (Margita Gosheva), orchestrates the whole charade, but has to juggle press conference planning with fertility treatments that include daily injections. Her sweet husband Valeri (Kitodar Todorov) reminds her of her shots, but Julia is more focused on ensuring that country bumpkin Tsanko makes her boss look rosy. At the conference, she bullies him to remove his watch, obviously a meaningful keepsake, to put on the crappy digital one he’s awarded for being an honest citizen — the starkly pale patch on his otherwise brown wrist mutely says all that’s needed about the watch’s importance. Once it’s over, the officious Julia pats herself on the back and refuses to clutter her mind with thoughts of Tsanko. But she took his Glory, and he wants it back.
For Julia, time is something to combat, whether it’s scrambling to contain the fallout from an unflattering news report or staving off the tick-tick-tick of her biological clock. In her bossy manner, superior airs, and urban-sexy business attire, she’s very much of the moment, viewing Tsanko like a representative of a backward era. For him, time is a means of symbiotically regulating life, like the train schedule or the feeding timetable for his pet rabbits; Julia robs him of this, which deprives him of his dignity. In retaliation he contacts investigative journalist Kiril Kolev (Milko Lazarov), but the reporter is more interested in exposing government corruption than helping this man gain respect.
Directors Grozeva and Valchanov carefully balance the two stories, weaving in just enough detail to deepen distinct psychological profiles which are beautifully brought out by the leads, both of whom made a lasting impression in “The Lesson.” From Tsanko’s reticent demeanor and quiet poise to Julia’s projection of dismissive superiority, both Denolyubov and Gosheva forcefully convey two sides of Bulgaria: one represents its roots, and the other a misshapen branch extending far beyond the trunk. The film’s one misstep is in the characterization of Julia and Valeri’s marriage, since his perpetual good nature combined with her cold ambition make for an unconvincing couple, though a funny scene where they fumble in a conference room with her first injection, while she hides her semi-undressed state wrapped in an EU flag, is a gem of amused, shared intimacy.
Visually, “Glory” hones to the kind of omnipresent realism that could remind some viewers that Bulgaria and Romania occasionally share more than just a geographical border. Valchanov’s editing knows how to get maximum effect from cutting just before expected, and the gut-punch finale, accompanied by a deliberately incongruous jazz tune, is a lesson in understated off-camera trepidation.