At once both cerebral and light as a feather, Ilian Metev’s feature debut “3/4” is a delicate family study that feels more indebted to modest, stripped down reveries from Asia (Hong Sang-soo comes to mind, without the alcohol) than anything in Bulgaria’s recent output. Having made a splash on the festival circuit in 2012 with his documentary “Sofia’s Last Ambulance,” the talented director and his collaborator Betina Ip turn to fiction filmed with realism, avoiding grand drama for more measured insight that captures a summer of change for a father and his two children. Made with non-professional actors and a lightweight camera to further the feel of verisimilitude, “3/4” will have some viewers apathetically shrugging their shoulders while many art-house habitués happily soak up the movie’s gentle rhythms. The top prize in Locarno’s Cinema of the Present section should help the film’s profile.
Metev isn’t interested in disquisition: He plunges us directly into this family’s world and doesn’t bother with filling in background details. First seen is Niki (Nikolay Mashalov), a young boy with a great deal of energy and a fondness for play in all its forms. He accompanies his older sister Mila (Mila Mihova) to piano lessons at the home of warmly sympathetic teacher Simona (Simona Genkova). Mila’s a rising star, but her extreme self-consciousness every time she hits a wrong note could jeopardize her upcoming audition for a place at a prestigious German music school.
Their father, Todor (Todor Veltchev), is a physics professor, rather absentminded and not on top of his children’s activities. The only mention of their mother is in a conversation the kids have about her sadness — the implication is she’s gone, though whether a suicide or just not present isn’t clear. What exists of Todor’s social life revolves around pub get-togethers with grad students from his department; he’s been pushing for his protégé, Sasho (Alexander Kurtenkov), to get a post abroad, but Sasho is leaning toward staying in Bulgaria. One night Niki goes missing, so Mila and Todor search the neighborhood to find him.
That’s it for a storyline, but “3/4” isn’t concerned with telling a narrative that goes from A to B. The title signals as much, both through its musical suggestion of three-quarter time as well as implying there’s one-quarter of the picture either lost (the mother) or remaining to be filled in. The film’s final piece, out of time with the rest of the film and unclear of place but with an uplifting lightness, sees Mila remark to Niki, “We have to catch the same rhythm,” acknowledging that the three family members are temporarily out of sync with each other, but conveying a sense of optimism that encourages the thought that this disparate trio can yet harmonize into an appealing melody.
Framing is as crucial for Metev as the characters themselves: together with Kamen Kalev’s usual d.p., Julian Atanassov, he keeps the camera on his protagonists while ensuring the space just offscreen is alive with possibilities. The feel is of being an involved spectator, at times keeping a moderately respectful distance (such as when the camera hovers outside the kitchen door while Todor sings a traditional song to the kids), and at other times seemingly being part of the action (as at the start, when Niki and friends kick around an empty plastic bottle). Only natural light is used, which occasionally leaves figures in darkness.