IFC teamed up with SXSW this year to simultaneously bring a clutch of festival features to VOD services. Currently running amongst all the mumblecore and realistic drama is a curdled little Bulgarian gem called ZIFT. Kind of like what happens when the idealism of Soviet realism comes crashing against the shoals of postwar deprivation, the film is a stylized, full-on wallow in the muck of human nature, but with stunning photography.
The word “zift,” it turns out, has multiple meanings. One is as a form of asphalt used for road work, another is for that same substance employed as chewing gum (ummmmmm-yummy!), and the third is an intuitive leap that takes the sensory aspects of the first, gangs them to the turd-like form of the second, and winds up as a synonym for shit. It’s that last definition that becomes the functional philosophy for the film, as the protagonist — a thief known by the nickname Moth (Zachari Baharov) who’s just emerging from a decade-plus prison sentence into the grey, totalitarian world of 1960’s Sofia — finds himself in all varieties of fecal matter as he tries to adjust to this grim Socialist paradise, and is pursued by former allies and adversaries eager to find out what happened to the very large gem that disappeared from his last heist, the one that got him unjustly jailed for murder.
Frankly, this much sweat, stubble, and blubbery flesh (the main antagonist — played by Vladimir Penev — is named Slug, and lives up to his billing in all senses) shouldn’t look this good, but director Javor Gardev, aided and abetted by his d.p. Emil Christov, captures it all in luminous black-and-white photography that pushes the unsparing architecture, filthy alleyways, and sallow complexions into a sort of surreal beauty. The visuals are complemented by plotting that trips briskly through the hallways of film noir, folk philosophy, and urban mythology, coming up with a narrative so delirious that it would leave Tarantino reeling. There may, in fact, be too much sidetracking — at some point I found myself thinking, Enough with the tangents, wasn’t there an actual story, that you were trying to tell? Others may feel that getting their faces rubbed in all that grime borders on the self-indulgent (they might also resent that a lift from the noir classic D.O.A. is so blatant that it puts the stess-test on the term “homage”), but I respect Gardev for his go-for-it attitude. There’s a glee in this visceral plunge into nastiness that’s hard to resist — if you’re willing to join everybody down in the pit and get dirty, you may find it more fun than anticipated. Sometimes a roll in the mud just feels so goddamn good.
ZIFT (IFC, 2008; 91 mins. In Bulgarian.) Directed by Javor Gardev. Cast: Zachari Baharov, Ranya Ilieva, Vladimir Penev.