×

Sarajevo Film Review: ‘Rounds’

Stephan Komandarev returns with another ambitious snapshot of Bulgarian society in flux, this time through the unreliable eyes of the police force.

Director:
Stephan Komandarev
With:
Ivan Barnev, Assen Blatechki, Stoyan Doychev, Vasil Vasilev-Zueka, Irini Jambonas, Stefan Denolyubov

1 hour 46 minutes

Five features (plus a scattering of documentaries) into his career, leading Bulgarian writer-director Stephan Komandarev has resisted cultivating a clear thematic or stylistic throughline to his oeuvre. Yet his latest, the overnight police patchwork “Rounds,” feels surprisingly close to quintessential, pulling as it does plot points, structural models and tonal switches from his previous films into one stacked crowdpleaser. Alternately wry and solemn as it follows three pairs of police officers through an eventful night’s patrol in central Sofia, “Rounds” unites several splintered mini-narratives about human trafficking, euthanasia and institutional corruption — among other hot-button topics — more cohesively and engrossingly than you might expect in its 106-minute runtime, though there’s as much soap as there is grit in the final mix.

A palpable hit with audiences upon its premiere at the Sarajevo Film Festival — where it scooped the Cineuropa Award, as well as the Best Actress jury prize for hard-bitten ensemble standout Irini Jambonas — “Rounds” isn’t afraid to play quite broadly with its social messaging and emotional manipulations. There’s enough political conflict and character complication here to keep things interesting, however: Viewers looking for a clear condemnation or endorsement of the boys (and beleaguered women) in blue will come away dissatisfied. That slightly barbed populist streak could make “Rounds” Komandarev’s most widely embraced film since his Oscar-shortlisted 2009 breakout “The World is Big and Salvation Lurks Around the Corner.”

The film stands as the second part, meanwhile, of a loosely conceived trilogy kicked off by 2017’s Cannes-selected “Directions”: roving ensemble pieces examining social injustice and inequality in contemporary Bulgaria through a series of colliding vignettes, given jittery, propulsive energy by cinematographer Vesselin Hristov’s nimble sequence shots. Taxi cabs were the, er, driving force of “Directions”; “Rounds” is a similarly road-based exercise in people-watching, but lent extra urgency and moral scrutiny by the flashing lights of cop cars. Its three contrasting pairs of on-duty officers exhibit varying degrees of by-the-book commitment and fellow-man concern, though none has a clean record. In the film’s most mordant running joke, at different points in its night-long timeframe, all three of them move the lifeless body of a junkie from its initial resting place into another police precinct, uniformly opting to pass on a gutter-class casualty rather than report it.

Popular on Variety

That should clue you into a certain level of contrivance powering Komandarev and Simeon Ventsislavov’s heavily knotted script, though it also points to default corruption even in the most upstanding areas of law enforcement. Their negligence will be countered with opposing acts of humanity and heroism as the night — which, pointedly, happens to mark the 30th anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s fall and Bulgaria’s ensuing regime change — wears on.

Elena (Jambonas) and Marin (Stefan Denolyubov) are partners distracted from their duties by an ill-judged sexual affair; their closeness muddies matters when Marin breaks protocol, upon rescuing a geriatric escapee from a local care home and discovering horrific, in-name-only living conditions in its wards. Old-timer Todor (Vasil Vasilev-Zueka) and young gun Vasil (Stoyan Doychev) must likewise make a swift choice between cop code and human instinct when attending to a young boy grievously assaulted by neo-Nazi bullies. Less honorably, Ivo (Assen Blatechki) and his partner (Ivan Barnev) torment a group of Romany petty criminals before revealing a grim side hustle in migrant trafficking — a storyline that feels partially lifted from Komandarev’s 2015 film “The Judgment” (also starring Blatechki).

That’s just a skimming of the heated subplots that surface in the course of this long night’s journey into day: Deftly juggled by editor Nina Altaparmakova, they clash, cross and pinball off each other in ways reminiscent of Paul Haggis’ “Crash” — and as in that divisive Oscar winner, the resulting narrative climaxes range from nervy to outlandish. “Rounds” is best at its most politically caustic, as when Ivo and his partner breezily discuss the pros and cons of sex under communism whilst disposing of a dead body; when that gallows humor gives way to outright melodramatic sentiment (the affair between Elena and Marin feels particularly cursory), the film exerts less authority. Yet as a portrait of a still-young democracy still finding its place in Europe (“at the periphery of the periphery,” as one cop glumly notes), “Rounds” feels quite aptly jumbled: Its dysfunctional police officers don’t aren’t above the law so much as hovering uncertainly around it.

Sarajevo Film Review: 'Rounds'

Reviewed at Sarajevo Film Festival (competing), Aug. 18, 2019. Running time: 106 MIN.

Production: (Bulgaria-Serbia-France) An Argo Film, See Film Pro production in co-production with Deuxieme Ligne Films, EZ Films. (International sales: Beta Cinema, Munich.) Producers: Katya Trichkova, Stephan Komandarev. Co-producers: Dobromir Chochov, Elie Meirovitz, Nenad Dukic, Marie Dubas.

Crew: Director: Stephan Komandarek. Screenplay: Komandarev, Simeon Ventsislavov. Camera (color): Vesselin Hristov. Editor: Nina Altaparmakova.

With: Ivan Barnev, Assen Blatechki, Stoyan Doychev, Vasil Vasilev-Zueka, Irini Jambonas, Stefan Denolyubov

More Film

  • My Salinger Year

    Berlin Film Festival to Open With Sigourney Weaver, Margaret Qualley Starrer 'My Salinger Year'

    The 70th edition of the Berlinale will open with Philippe Falardeau’s anticipated “My Salinger Year,” headlined by a powerful female duo, Sigourney Weaver and Margaret Qualley. Set in New York’s literary world in the 90’s, the coming-of-age-story is based on Joanna Rakoff’s international bestseller and follows Joanna (Qualley), who leaves graduate school to pursue her [...]

  • Bad Hair

    'Bad Hair': Film Review

    The year is 1989 and New Jack Swing is about to push black culture from the margins to the mainstream. The question for the black employees of Culture, the music TV station at the center of writer-director Justin Simien’s delightfully macabre horror-dramedy “Bad Hair,” is what image do they — and their white executive Grant [...]

  • Bad Hair

    Justin Simien's 'Bad Hair' is a Tribute to Exploited Black Women Everywhere, Director Says

    Deeply personal but indulgently campy, Justin Simien’s Sundance opener “Bad Hair” is a genre-blending horror show that the director said serves as a tribute to the struggles of black women. The mind behind  “Dear White People” staged the world premiere for the project at Park City’s Ray Theater on Thursday night, before a cast that [...]

  • Taylor Swift: Miss Americana

    'Taylor Swift: Miss Americana': Film Review

    Fly-on-the-wall portraits of pop-music stars used to be dominated by, you know, pop music. The life and personality and woe-is-me-I’m-caught-in-the-media-fishbowl spectacle of the star herself was part of the equation, yet all that stuff had a way of dancing around the edges. Now, though, it’s front and center. In “Taylor Swift: Miss Americana,” we catch [...]

  • Taylor Swift attends the premiere of

    Sundance Crowd Goes Wild as Taylor Swift Becomes Powerful Voice of Trump Resistance

    At the outset of the first screening of the documentary “Miss Americana” Thursday night at the Sundance Film Festival, it was clear at the outset that it was not necessarily Taylor Swift’s core audience filling the Eccles Theater for the premiere. The opening scene has Swift trying to write a song at the piano while [...]

  • wanda Imax China

    China Closes Thousands of Theaters in Response to Coronavirus Outbreak

    China closed swathes of cinemas on Friday in response to the outbreak of novel coronavirus, which started in the city of Wuhan and has now killed 26 people. The closures come a day after the distributors and producers of the seven major blockbusters that had expected to launch from Jan. 25 cancelled their films’ releases. [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content