‘Fear’ Review: A Warm Charmer of a Social Satire Addressing Refugee Fears in Bulgaria

Last year's Bulgarian Oscar submission, Ivaylo Hristov's film is a disarming, deadpan comedy of xenophobia and resistance.

Courtesy of ProFilm

A perfect movie for the moment — though it debuted in late 2020, winning the Grand Prize at Tallin Black Nights — “Fear” offers both seriocomic balm and finger-wagging just as another major refugee crisis roils the world. Bulgarian theater and film veteran Ivaylo Hristov’s latest feature brings to mind not just current Ukraine-related events, but wider European and global trends, as it depicts a border backwater rattled when a lonely local widow takes in an African man fleeing war. Selected as last year’s Bulgarian Oscar submission, this warmly ingratiating piece in cool widescreen monochrome is a keeper, reminiscent of bittersweet fish-out-of-water arthouse hits like “The Band’s Visit,” as well as select gems from Soviet-bloc nations’ 1960s new wave.

Flinty middle-aged widow Svetla (Svetlana Yancheva) is introduced closing up the classroom she’ll no longer be teaching in, as the entire school is being closed for lack of students. Indeed, everything hereabouts seems to be dying out, poverty having long since chased the young from an erstwhile seaside resort town, where minimal job prospects are limited to what remains of “the season.” On the long bicycle ride to her ramshackle home in the woods, Svetla gets propositioned by old dandy Ivan (Ivan Savov), the closest thing left to a local tycoon. But she impatiently brushes him off, preferring to visit the grave of her late fisherman husband, lost at sea 15 years before. She has a more amiable if equally hands-off rapport with burly Bochev (Stoyan Bochev), commander of a small military unit stationed here due to the Turkish border’s proximity.

Personal hardship has not made the locals more sympathetic to the plight of refugees streaming over that border from various conflict hotspots, hoping to make their way to western Europe. Thus when Svetla stumbles upon Malian Bamba (Michael Flemming) while hare-hunting, she trains her shotgun on him, marching him to the military outpost. But they’re all out, having been tipped to a larger group of Afghans crossing through the area, while the snippy, preoccupied mayor (Kristina Yaneva) offers no help or guidance.

Svetla thus has little choice but to house her “prisoner” herself. Though they have no language in common (a situation soon slightly improved by a borrowed English vocabulary book), she discovers the polite, bespectacled, dreadlocked Bamba is a doctor whose entire family was killed amidst civil unrest. When she makes it clear he’s free to go — the authorities being too busy with the Afghan crisis to bother with him — he lingers. He is, in fact, good company. But just when they’re really starting to cheer each other up, a rock comes crashing through the window. Already suspect as a woman willingly alone, Svetla has truly crossed a line by taking in a darker-skinned man within a narrow-minded community already inclined to blame every woe on “damned gypsies.”

Given this atmosphere of racism, xenophobia and threatened violence, “Fear” might easily have taken its narrative in a horrific “Straw Dogs” direction. But while Hristov doesn’t stint on his indictment of bigotry, he prefers to couch it in absurdist humor recalling the barbed yet gentle social satires of Jiri Menzel, Milos Forman and other Eastern Euro auteurs over half a century ago.

That pleasingly retro feel is heightened by the elegant simplicity of cinematographer Emil Christov’s beautifully sharp B&W compositions, with other design contributions likewise astute. While the portrayal of nationalist venom has a real sting to it, “Fear” never strays far from comedic terrain, and ends on a whimsical note (introducing the film’s first flash of color) underlining that the intent here is more parabolic than literal-minded. It’s also a cheering portrait of female indomitability, in the mode of such recent films as “Hive” and “This Is Not a Burial, It’s a Resurrection.” Looking rather like a rural Patti Smith, Yancheva’s formidable heroine draws grudging admiration (“What a stubborn woman you are”) from Bochev, who turns out to be one of the more reasonable opponents here.

In the end, “Fear” offers the most beguiling kind of plea for tolerance, via antic suggestion that any other behavior is strictly for dolts whose mob mentality makes them look very stupid indeed. It’s a lesson that goes down easily with this much deadpan charm and skill on tap.

‘Fear’ Review: A Warm Charmer of a Social Satire Addressing Refugee Fears in Bulgaria

Reviewed online, March 8, 2022. Running time: 100 MIN. (Original title: “Strah”)

  • Production: (Bulgaria) A Film Movement release of a ProFilm presentation in association with Bulgarian National Film Center. (International sales: Films2C, Los Angeles.) Producer: Assen Vladimirov.
  • Crew: Director, screenplay: Ivaylo Hristov. Camera: Emil Christov. Editor: Toma Waszarow. Music: Kiril Donchev.
  • With: Svetlana Yancheva, Michael Flemming, Ivan Savov, Stoyan Bochev, Krassmir Dokov, Miroslava Gogovska, Kristina Yaneva. (English, Bulgarian dialogue.)