An e-mail from a British colleague prompted me to prioritize the viewing of this DVD, which I recently purchased for 3 Bg leva in the Sofia supermarket near where my parents live. As I promised to lend him the film, I thought I should view it before sending it off, just to refresh my memory of it and see if the feeling of serious reservations that it had left me with on first viewing (now nearly 30 years ago!) would change.
The British colleague is interested in Binka Zhelyazkova’s work in general, and for a good reason: she is one of the major feminist directors from Eastern Europe, but, unlike Vera Chytilova or Marta Meszaros, she remains virtually unknown. The man had tried to approach the cinematheque in Sofia to check if they would consider making Binka’s work available, and had received a polite response written in good English which was informing him that, yes, they could produce copies and DVDs and in general help with availability, only they would do this if he could please make his own arrangements toward presenting them with letters from two other Bulgarian institutions that would give the cinematheque authorisation to go ahead with making the material available. Needless to say, the colleague dropped it all at this point (as most other researchers would); seeing this correspondence gave me an interesting glimpse into the absurdities in treating cinematic heritage that everybody working on these matters is constantly confronted with.
Now about the film itself. I still think i is a really week one; I could not help it being truly annoyed by the cartoonish characters, the slow pace, and lack of dramatic tension. If I remember correctly, the plot of the film is based on a real story. During the shooting of a film set in ancient Thrace, a bunch of friends organise a midnight swimming party on the seaside set. Drunken, they decide to play a game where one of them climbs on a stone with a rope on his neck and a sickle in his hand. The others are dancing in a circle and at one point somebody kicks the stone underneath the hangman; to save himself he is supposed to manage cutting the rope with the sickle. Two of the ‘victims’ make it, but in the third instance the young man does not manage to cut the rope and hangs. This is the culminating event in the film, which is preceded by a long (and tedious) build up of what are supposedly character studies of those involved, and is followed by an equally tedious investigation. It is all supposed to expose the drunken and promiscuous environment and the moral decline (of mature socialism) that leads to the sad loss. One of the subplots is the love affair between young gorgeous Ninel and Sava, a relationship that is seriously tested by their class differences (something that would normally not be supposed to exist under socialism). Another subplot tackles ‘The Little Prince’, the son of a highly placed party apparatchik who has just been demoted (so all speculate how their friend will be affected), yet another story included to expose the moral corruption within socialism. All protagonists are good looking, well-to-do, successful, and sexy; yet their problems are not deeply suffered and there is no dramatic development to build up to the moment of the hanging; the 150 min. length of the film can hardly be justified.
Golyamoto noshtno kapane (1980) is scripted, like Binka Zhelyazkova’s previous film, Baseynat/Swimming Pool (1977) by her husband Hristo Ganev, who is responsible also for the script of A byahme mladi/ We Were Young (1961), a film that won the top award at the Moscow International Film Festival but was nonetheless shelved afterwards and created a number of problems both for the director and the screenwriter.* One should immediately say that the script is probably the film’s biggest liability. It is supposed to have been a daring statement of sort, as Hristo Ganev enjoyed the reputation of a dissident writer, and it is probably not politically correct to declare his work weak (especially, as I can imagine, he has probably seen at least some of his work suppressed by the authorities). However, i simply cannot help it calling the script what it is: a feeble work of screenwriting. While it is clearly intended to critique the moral decline that reigned over mature socialism, as revealed here through the disorientation of this lost generation, the film is heavily dominated by small talk dialogue that should have been cut down in order to allow the director use at least some of her imagination. A pity that she does not appear to have had the strength to resist the weak script and take charge.
The second liability is the poor acting. Not much could have been done there, however, provided the heavy dialogue dominates it all. The actors are selected from among the promising new generation of VITIZ gaduates: Nikolay Sotirov (a Mathew Modine look-alike), Yanina Kasheva, Tania Shahova, Lyuben Chatalov — all actors who showed promise but were then affected by the downturn in cinema that came about at the end of the decade when they had launched their careers. For who knows what reason, there are two foreign actors in the cast (not that their presence is logically required, nor that they contribute anything to the performance, as they are both more than boring): Polish Malgorzata Braunek who plays the jaded masseuse Zhana, and Lithianian heart-throb Juozas Budraitis, whose supporting role barely has more than ten lines. I would speculate that the reason these two were in the film is that they simply wanted to spend a paid vacation on Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast. The main ‘acting’ is in the heavy dialogues between Nkolay Sotirov (Sava) and Yanina Kasheva (Ninel) and is meant to expose the rift between profound inherent values of carrying morality that is still intact in the provinces (he is taking care of his ill mother in the beautiful mountain hamlet of Melnik) and the inherently corrupt mores exemplified by English-language-school graduate Ninel and her friends, an urban crowd from the capital (new bourgeoisie, so to speak).
There are moments of greatness in this film, however, remnants of Binka Zhelyazkova’s trademark avantgardist brilliance: the occasional low camera shot, the bird-eye view scenes, the filming of animals (killing of birds and crabs), the drum, the dry tree on the stony seaside. These are, however, too few, to compensate for the overwhelming boredom. With the abundance of close up shots of beautiful semi-naked bodies among sand dunes, this film somehow kept referencing in my mind to a relatively recent Vera Chytilová work, the equally weak Vyhnání z ráje/ Expulsion from Paradise (2001), which, even if made more than twenty years later also evolves around sand dunes and relationships, and looks very similar in its beach stories, aesthetics and concerns.
I must confess to taking a profound dislike to all novels and films that feature a group of similar protagonists, and where the focus is on the group dynamics — be it taking place in a boarding school, a student dorm, in a madhouse or, like here, among a group of young people on their summer holidays. It is a large topic that I am not going to go into and which I am mentioning mostly because, strangely enough, it seems it was this kind of group dynamics films that dominated the early 1980s of Bulgarian cinema. The earliest one seems to be Binka Zhelyazkova and Hristo Ganev’s Baseynat/Swimming Pool (1977), about a bunch of young people confronting issues of moral decline, very similar and equally dialogue-heavy as The Big Night Bathe. Then there were films such as Vulo Radev‘s Adaptatsiya/Adaptation (1981), probably the best of this range (about a bunch of young people belonging to a psychoanalysis group), Lavina/ Avalanche (1982), based on Blaga Dimitrova (a bunch of young people forced to confront their moral foundations when challenged by nature), and Rangel Vulchanov‘s A sega nakade?/And Where Do We Go From Here? (1986), about a bunch of young people searching for a moral compass in life. The cycle probably came to an end with Ivan Andonov‘s Vchera/Yesterday (1988) where the bunch of young people affected by a moral crisis put it all squarely on the vicious socialist system. What is noteworthy is that all these films scrutinizing the moral decline in the young generation were made by members of the older generation, directors and writers born in the 1920s and the early 1930s; members of the generation that was being scrutinised (my generation actually, born in the 1960s) simply never had the chance to make films on these matters as by the time we came to maturity, the end of socialist funding for cinema hit and severely limited the chances to develop robust and prolific filmmaking careers. Thus, we never had the chance to give a cinematic response to the diagnostic that older filmmakers were imposing on us.
When I look back now, I realize that I probably hated these films as my life was not particularly different from what was shown in it. We had all adapted to the socialist system which we were not finding particularly onerous, as long as we could go abroad once a year and spend three weeks by leisurely exposing our naked bodies on the cliffs near the village of Varvara, where, for many years, the dry tree used as a prop for the hanging in The Big Night Bathe was still standing. We were passing by it every day, on our way to the nudist beach, and then also on most nights, on our way to the late night parties that were full of alcohol, locally sourced and prepared food, and heterosexual sex: pretty much the same stuff that is seen in the film.
* See my piece on these matters: Iordanova, Dina. “Binka Zhelyazkova” In: Censorship: A World Encyclopedia (ed. Derek Jones), London/Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn Publ., 2001, vol 4, pp. 2705/6.
© Dina Iordanova
10 March 2009