January: An impressively spooky film to take us out of deep winter

Dark Bulgarian drama, adapted from an allegorical play by Yordan Radichkov, has familiar absurdist themes

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Director: Andrey Paounov
Cert: None
Starring: Samuel Finzi, Iossif Sarchadzhiev, Zachary Baharov, Leonid Yovchev, Malin Krastev, Borislav Chouchkov
Running Time: 1 hr 50 mins

Late on in this intriguing Bulgarian drama, we encounter an explicit reference to – one might almost say “recreation of” – key scenes from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Sure enough, this adaptation of an allegorical play by Yordan Radichkov does indeed concern a lonely man going bonkers in a remote snowy locale. Several men in fact. Kubrick is not the only artist who springs to mind. Shot almost entirely in black and white, the film plays out in the gloomy long takes we expect of Béla Tarr. You can’t help but think of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker. The great amount of waiting nudges us towards a certain Beckett play from the 1950s.

Yet Andrey Paounov, a documentarian making his fiction debut, does clear some artistic space for himself. Two obscurely described forestry officials are lurking in a remote shed in a wooded area much frequented by wolves when another couple of oddballs turn up asking for assistance with their snow plough. Then a deranged holy man arrives and insists to know the whereabouts of the first characters’ colleague. When that man’s horse returns with nothing accompanying it except a frozen wolf in the sledge behind, it becomes clear (if it hadn’t before) that we are in old-school absurdist territory. Through it all a charismatic inky crow waits to suck back straight glasses of the fruit brandy known locally as rakia.

That bizarre stylistic shift into sub-Shining is perhaps the least successful sequence in a film that otherwise makes the most of its hemmed-in, snowy geography. No doubt a great deal of the political allegory, hinting at a country stripped bare by absentee tyrants, will be lost on those of us raised far from the Black Sea. The play was written as far back as 1974 and what survives suggests a writer trying to express objections in a fashion oblique enough not to irritate cultural commissars.

That fogginess can become frustrating. But there are enough eerie switchbacks throughout the drama to keep even the least politically engaged viewer interested. An impressively spooky drama to take us out of deep winter and towards something we optimistically call spring.

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist