Popular philosopher Alain de Botton once propounded the theory that road rage is the result of an overly optimistic nature: The pessimist expects traffic to be terrible and other drivers to be idiots, and so doesn’t experience the same outbursts of frustration and despair as the optimist. Bulgarian director Stephan Komanderev’s largely road-bound “Directions,” an ensemble drama of vignettes that explores the fissures and crevices in modern Bulgarian society through a series of taxi rides, might well have been founded on this counterintuitive principle. Indeed at one point a character remarks offhandedly: “Bulgaria is a country of optimists. All the pessimists and realists left long ago.” Yet for a place full of optimists, there sure is a lot of trauma around — suicide, ill health, economic desolation, political disenchantment, social stratification — all of which Komandarev’s clever, fleet-footed film observes with poignant accuracy and flashes of wry humor.
Surprisingly, given that it’s entirely set in and around cars, road rage is one manifestation of modern urban malaise that Komandarev and co-writer Simeon Ventsislavov’s screenplay does not touch upon. To the contrary, the taxis that prowl around Sofia’s nighttime streets are more like brief respites from the worries that await at either end of the journey — and sometimes, as in the case of a female driver and a male passenger, literal vehicles for retribution. The fraternity of taxi drivers, loosely linked by friendly nods as they pass; the burbling radio news they all listen to; and the stories of the passengers they carry; is as close to a caring community as this vision of Sofia gets. With so many of the drivers forced to turn to this casual employment to make ends meet though their professional expertise lies elsewhere, there’s an underlying sense of solidarity among them, highlighted by how they react to the violent end met by one of their number.
That driver is Misho (Vassil Vassilev) the harried father of a high-school-age daughter. Late for a meeting with a banker (Georgi Kadurin) who’s little more than a racketeer wearing a suit of respectability, Misho discovers his hopes of financial reprieve casually dashed. Taking a gun from his glove compartment (he’s not the last driver shown to have a firearm stashed somewhere), he shoots the banker dead and attempts suicide. It’s an opening rife with Eastern European social-realist grimness (a feeling that isn’t helped by the slightly mundane lensing, which sacrifices ideal compositions in favor of docudrama immediacy in the form of long, handheld takes).
But the film quickly mellows and broadens, with the initial incident providing the backdrop against which many other stories unfold, in different registers of bitterness, melancholy, hopefulness and humor. Misho’s heart is to be given to an ailing unemployed baker (Stephan Denolyubov), who’s picked up by a priest moonlighting as a driver. The doctor who is going to perform the surgery is delivered to the hospital by Rada (Irini Zhambonas), with whom he has a conversation about leaving Bulgaria. Meanwhile, an older driver (Vasil Banov) quietly mourns his recently deceased son, while another (Assen Blatechki) fresh from a subtle rejection by a pretty female passenger, uses a genial subterfuge to save a potential suicide.
In the many long-take interior shots in cars, “Directions” recalls the work of Iranian masters Abbas Kiarostami and Jafar Panahi, but its nighttime setting and the idiosyncratic individuals it portrays also bring to mind Jim Jarmusch’s “Night on Earth.” Notably, Komandarev’s film is less uneven than Jarmusch’s and the psychologically insightful exchanges that make up the majority of the runtime exist to be more than just quirky. Loosely linked as they are, they build to a choral impression of a society that, while riven by division, corruption and the exploitation of the poor by the rich, still somehow holds out hope for itself, perhaps because of ordinary people like these drivers, circulating their basic human decency around the nighttime streets like they’re the lifeblood of the city.