When life gives you lemons, make lemonade, the sunny proverb goes. But what if life gives you inedibly sour quinces instead? The father-son odd-couple road trip comedy gets an appealingly deadpan, Bulgarian makeover in Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov’s third feature, a film that takes the bittersweet fruits of its funny, sad, silly situations, and eventually, after many a comical false start, makes jam.
Not all filmmakers can say they’ve carved out a distinctive niche for themselves after just three features, but the Bulgarian writing-producing-directing duo are among the few who can. So while “The Father” occupies a lighter, gentler register than jet-black fables “The Lesson” and “Glory,” it shows the same affinity for screw-tightening stories of fundamentally decent people caught in an escalating series of thankless dilemmas, through no malicious intent of their own. In the Grozeva/Valchanov Cinematic Universe, no good deed goes unpunished, but this time out the result is a comedy of exasperation rather than desperation, making it their most pleasantly accessible film to date.
What sort of a man would arrive late to his own mother’s funeral? Advertising photographer Pavel (Ivan Barnev), who has driven out to his childhood hometown from the city where he works, that’s who. Sidling apologetically to the graveside through the thicket of more respectful mourners, he joins his stiffly resentful father Vassil (Ivan Savov) by the open casket. And then his phone, set to a frog-ribbit ringtone, goes off in his pocket.
The rather meek Pavel’s obviously long-strained relationship with his firebrand artist father is neatly delineated in a few choice scenes thereafter: Vassil undercuts his son at every opportunity, his bluster taking on a keen, nasty edge in the maelstrom of clearly genuine grief. For his part, Pavel bottles up his resentment until he no longer can, and it pours out of him in a tirade that takes swipes at his father’s efficacy as family breadwinner, and even his political principles. “I was a dissident!” yells Vassil. “Yes, one with a [Communist] Party membership in his pocket the whole time!” snarls Pavel back at him. The film is clever and cutting about how men of wildly different temperaments who have the misfortune to be related talk to each other, especially in the sudden absence of a well-loved wife/mother who clearly acted as a buffer. Here, the mutual failure to communicate is raised to the level of an artform.
With the very best of intentions, Pavel has lied to everybody: to Vassil about the reason for his wife’s absence from the funeral; to his wife, whom we only ever hear on the phone, about where he is and why; and to his assistant at work who is running down the clock on an advertising job with a tricky client. The evasions and falsehoods snow down thicker when Vassil’s unexpected interest in the gimcrackery of a local guru/charlatan, who claims to be able to commune with the dead, means that Pavel has to delay his return. Eventually Pavel is trapped in a blizzard of white lies, all the more vexing — and relatable — because they’re of his own making.
As ever, Grozeva and Valchanov keep their craft simple and restrained. The only formal flourish from regular DP Krum Rodriguez’s unshowy handheld camera is to keep us very close to Pavel, giving us a creeping sense of claustrophobia as the walls of his self-made prison of misunderstanding and deception close in. With all those close-ups, and without a score to underline the usually unspoken emotion of a scene, it’s crucial that Barnev makes the stoic everyman Pavel as watchable as he does, while seeming to do so little. But he and Savov, who imbues even Vassil’s least forgivable outbursts with an undercurrent of bewildered terror at a later-life that looks infinitely more lonely than before, play off each other beautifully.
Good as Barnev’s consummate underplaying is, even he cannot quite sell the screenplay’s most contrived moments. As always, with the drama of escalating misunderstanding, there does come a juncture when the gears begin to grind — and your mileage to that marker may vary depending on your tolerance for characters opting to double down on a lie rather than tell the clearly more effective truth. But it’s a forgivable flaw, because it deposits us exactly where we need to be for the surprisingly effective and graceful finale. Like Vassil who longs for a miracle but gets a more meaningful prosaic revelation instead, like Pavel who doesn’t believe in miracles but gets one in among the hearses and horses and scratchcard-playing policemen, the offbeat, heartfelt “The Father” may not always give us what we want, but it makes sure we get what we need.