Hollywood’s repeatable storylines and empty blockbusters may be dominating the world’s movie theatres, but believe it or not, quality films have been shot and are being made elsewhere too.
Bulgarian cinema had its golden age in the 70s and 80s, when the state-funded film industry was tasked with providing entertainment for the masses – and did an impressively good job at it! And though Bulgaria is producing less films these days than in the past, quite a few successful and captivating Bulgarian movies have been released in recent years as well.
What is unique about Bulgarian films are the fresh and clever stories, the unforgettable characters and the atmospheric settings which give the movies a look and feel decidedly different from Hollywood’s style that relies on CGI and other visual effects.
From the tale of a plum-eating dolphin to the drama caused by a music teacher who sings terribly, kashkaval tourist presents 10 classic Bulgarian films you must watch.
1. “Gotta sleep for 10 more minutes and then I’m coming”: With Children at the Seaside (1972)
With Children at the Seaside (С деца на море, S detsa na more) is a charming collection of two storylines united by their setting at the Bulgarian seaside and the mischievous but honest character of Pipsi.
The first part revolves around a summer love story in Nesebar, a historic Bulgarian seaside town, and a group of kids who keep following the young lovers, hoping to catch a glimpse of the legendary plum-eating dolphin that they reportedly sail off to meet every day.
The second part involves Georgi Partsalev’s memorable character Uncle Mancho who goes to the seaside with his mistress, but is immediately caught on camera by Pipsi. Seeking to destroy the evidence of his affair, Mancho is forced to somehow take the camera away from the children.
2. “Why is this dog green? It’s a little crocodile”: Dangerous Charm (1984)
In Dangerous Charm (Опасен чар, Opasen char), famous Bulgarian actor Todor Kolev plays a conman who seduces single women with his charm and intellect, robs them of their money and spends it all on mindless entertainment.
The police are following the conman in his trails, though his ingenious decisions and clever use of fake names (as well as completely made up Frank Lloyd Wright quotes!) pushes his plan forward… Until the conman himself finds love, or does he?
3. “Backgammon has nothing to do with luck”: The World Is Big and Salvation Lurks Around the Corner (2008)
A movie with a long name, The World Is Big and Salvation Lurks Around the Corner (Светът е голям и спасение дебне отвсякъде, Svetat e golyam i spasenie debne otvsyakade) manages to touch upon a long list of topics too.
The films tells of a young Bulgarian emigrant in Germany who has lost his memory in a deadly car crash. In an effort to help him rebuild his life post-amnesia, his Bulgarian grandfather visits him in Germany and takes him on a journey back home – mentally as well as by bicycle. Backgammon, a favourite Balkan pastime, plays an important metaphorical role in the film.
4. “Even if there’s no trail, they shall not stand still”: The Goat Horn (1972)
Considered to be one of Bulgarian cinematography’s masterpieces (and perhaps the only Bulgarian film to receive a remake), The Goat Horn (Козият рог, Koziyat rog)takes place in the troubled years of the early Ottoman rule. A father and daughter have lost the woman in the family in a brutal Turkish raid, forcing them to retreat to the mountains and plan their revenge.
The early part of the movie eerily reminded me of Léon: The Professional, though the latter stages gradually develop into a powerful and tragic tale about personal freedom, love and the human spirit. Words are scarce in this one, though memorable moments abound.
5.“What was the fish? A German!”: The Three Reservists (1971)
The Three Reservists (Тримата от запаса, Trimata ot zapasa) takes place towards the end of World War II, when Bulgaria is fighting the Nazis in the plains of Hungary. A motley crew of three newly-recruited soldiers arrives on the frontline, completely unprepared for fighting the sturdy Germans.
A sabbatarian who refuses to carry a rifle, a newly-wed who can’t wait to get back home to his wife and a single guy who’s constantly flirting with a beautiful Hungarian woman… what could go wrong?
6. “The next song will be about love, a break-up… and something else”: A Band with No Name (1982)
What’s a band without a name and a singer? This question seems to trouble the characters in A Band with No Name (Оркестър без име, Orkestar bez ime) throughout this incredibly fresh comedy.
A band of talented amateur musicians have secured an invitation to play at an elite hotel by the seaside. However, their dream is endangered by personal relationships and external interests… as well as a mysterious Italian whose car has broken down. Can they make it in the competitive music scene at the seaside or do they have to return back home in defeat?
7. “Why are you laughing? Well, cause Comrade Stefanov sings badly”: Loving Out of Spite (1986)
Loving Out of Spite (Да обичаш на инат, Da obichash na inat) is a coming-of-age story about the troubled relations between a father and his early teenage son. The father wants his son to stand his ground when he is right, though can that lead to trouble in the complicated world of communist Bulgaria where staying under the radar is a survival skill?
When the son makes fun of his music teacher’s terribly singing skills and then stubbornly refuses to apologize, a simple act of resistance may put the entire family in danger.
8. “Now you’re gonna see if a horse eats beans!”: Yesterday (1988)
Yesterday (Вчера, Vchera) focuses on an elite Bulgarian boarding school and its students, though it does it rather differently from an American high-school comedy. A student is forced to leave when everybody finds out she is pregnant and a new girl who had lived abroad with her diplomat family comes in to take her place.
The young men and women get to find out that even at this early age, it matters more who your parents are than how bright you are, and a seemingly innocent love triangle takes a dramatic turn.
9. Bulgarian animation’s silent masterpiece: The Three Fools (1970-90)
Not a feature film but rather a collection of 11 ingenious shorts, The Three Fools (Тримата глупаци, Trimata glupatsi) is perhaps Bulgarian animation’s highest achievement. Relying on chief animator and director Donyo Donev’s minimal but expressive drawing style as well as cheeky and satirical stories, The Three Fools have made generations of Bulgarians laugh together.
The shorts mostly do not include any spoken dialogue, only interjections and sounds set to a backdrop of lively Bulgarian folk instrumentals. This made them directly accessible to a wide audience, both in Bulgaria and abroad.
10. “You shouldn’t have built a synagogue right in front of my grandpa’s… ”: After the End of the World (1998)
For a movie in which hardly any of the characters is supposed to be an ethnic Bulgarian, After the End of the World (След края на света, Sled kraya na sveta) tells a quintessentially Bulgarian story of rekindled childhood love and exile.
A Jewish man who lives in Israel returns to his native Plovdiv for a history conference, where (coincidentally or not) he meets his childhood Armenian love, now a married woman. Their walks on the streets of Plovdiv’s authentic Old Town bring back memories of a long lost time when the priest, the rabbi and the mufti would play cards together and accuse each other of cheating… until communist rule arrives and changes everything completely.