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.
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.