Perhaps the only thing worse than entering a pre-Communist Bulgarian prison to serve a long sentence for a murder you didn’t commit is getting released in the 1960s, with the Soviets firmly in place. But when this happens to Moth (Zahary Baharov), the protagonist in Zift, he learns the lesson the hard way--even though his cellmate and mentor, Van Wurst the Eye (Mihail Mutafov), knew better and tried to set Moth straight before hanging himself just prior to his own release.
So Moth leaves prison to enter a society gone haywire, encountering a painful lack of liberty that explodes his escapist plan to head to the tropics. Lies, deceit, torture, poison--they all conspire in a layered story-telling to provide a queasy, uneasy form of entertainment. Symbolism prevails here, and may well be worth decoding, but the narrative ride alone is intrinsically enjoyable.
Moth’s antagonist, Slug (Vladimir Penev), is deeply reprehensible. Think of Nietzsche in a uniform, with a cadre of amoral underlings and access to hidden chambers and devices of state-sanctioned evil. The two used to be allies, but the murder--and the years since--have changed the equation, with the beautiful Ada (Tanya Ilieva) as the x-factor. Her nickname is Mantis, and she earns it. Somehow, too, there is comedy amid all the overbearing treachery and stench.
Zift is a heist movie, a prison movie, a twisted love story, a hazy morality tale--but it's also good, dirty fun. And sexy, despite (or, perhaps, because of) the slime and decreptitude of a city—Bulgarian capital Sophia—ruled by dehumanizing paradox. The movie’s black-and-white cinematography and erudite direction combine swooping camera angles and intricate, choreographed long takes to weave artfulness into even the most base scenes, such as prison cage-boxing and frantic sex amid offal-filled garbage cans. Over-the-top homage to noir stand-bys may turn off serious cinephiles but, hey, that’s what genre films do, right?
If nothing else, Zift does something quite unexpected: it makes a case for watching the future of Bulgarian filmmaking. Director Javor Gardev knows what he’s up to, and the screenwriter--University of Pennsylvania’s Vladimir Todorov, who wrote the novel of the same name on which the movie is based--is sporty with the narrative. Good, dirty fun doesn’t often look, feel, or sound this sophisticated.
And that’s the trick with the title, too. Zift is “shit,” “chewing gum,” or “an asphalt paving material,” and neither definition whets the appetite. But after seeing how much Moth enjoys the taste and mouth-feel of it--and how it becomes a useful plot device--viewers may want to get their hands on some of their own. Until they do, the movie version will more than suffice.