Wednesday, 28 March 2012


That most American of genres, film noir, gets a new twist here in the form of Javor Gadev’s Zift, which takes all the tropes and conventions and transports them to Bulgaria. With its strong narrative, femme fatale and hardboiled exterior, Zift pays homage to and attempts to update the genre – but does it succeed?

Zift tells the story of Moth (Zahary Baharov), an inmate who’s spent the best part of his adult life behind bars. Jailed in the 1940s for a murder he did not commit, he is released following his good behaviour and commitment to communist ideals. Exiting prison, he is immediately dragged back into custody by unscrupulous criminals determined to drag the whereabouts of a missing diamond from their captive.

It transpires that along with his childhood sweetheart, Ada (Tanya Iliev), and fellow criminal Slug (Vladimir Penev), Moth was involved in a diamond heist which went badly wrong and led to him being implicated in the aforementioned murder. Refusing to reveal the truth, Moth accepted a jail sentence in order to protect the pregnant Ada from violent repercussions. Upon Moth’s release, Slug attempts to torture the whereabouts of the missing jewel from him – only for him to stage a violent escape…

Zift is a very handsome movie. Filmed entirely in black-and-white, each scene is crisp and beautifully framed. Javor Gadev has real visual flair – best embodied by a tricksy shot of Moth’s face being revealed slowly as a burning postcard turns to ash in front of the camera. It’s stunning – and there are plenty more moments like it. The cast is striking, too – either cartoonishly vulgar looking villains or beautiful heroes (or anti-heroes).

The majority of the gaudy characters are loaded into the film’s opening act: a prison drama full of tension, drama and philosophy. Cut with romantic, misty-eyed flashbacks of Moth and Ada’s youth, it’s a tour-de-force of storytelling, combining various eras with masses of information in a clear and compelling form. When Moth is released from his sentence and captured by criminals, the pace is upped in brutal fashion – and the stylised violence is a real success: maximum effect with minimum gore. Unfortunately, a scarcely believable escape sequence through a women’s spa heralds a far less successful second half to Zift.

The movie’s second act begins with a truly baffling scene set in a doctor’s waiting room. Gathered patients take turns sharing seemingly unrelated anecdotes for what seems like no good reason at all. Perhaps these tales are analogies or allegories, but without a sound knowledge of Bulgarian history, they certainly make little sense. From here, the plot becomes increasingly predictable and the symbolism ever more clumsy. A beautifully shot sex scene is undermined by being cross cut with stock footage of praying mantises copulating: the females are dangerous and eat their mates, you see?

The plot has more than a passing resemblance to Jason Statham vehicle Crank as a poisoned Moth struggles to put his house in order before succumbing to the iridium coursing through his veins. It’s more stylish than Crank, of course, but the twists and double-crosses are so clearly telegraphed as to hardly qualify for the label at all. Perhaps film noir is more about the journey than the destination, but in updating the genre, Javor Gadev might have attempted something slightly more ambitious at the denouement.

There are also some technical faults with the film. With just one actor playing Moth over a period of around twenty years, little is done to change Zahary Baharov’s appearance other than altering his hairstyle. It’s asking the audience to suspend disbelief to suggest that he wouldn’t have altered facially – but worse than that, it doesn’t really convey the passage of time effectively. On a similarly hirsute theme, the women in the film are alarmingly short of pubic hair and their modern approach to personal topiary confuses the time period still further – at times, it’s easy to forget that the majority of the film is set in the ‘60s.

The ‘zift’ of the title refers to bitumen, a tarmac like substance which was apparently used as chewing gum in Bulgaria. It’s also a slang term for excrement. Moth carries a ball of this throughout the movie and its symbolic value is obvious – not least in a scene where he is face down on a blacktopped street staring at the substance. It’s also apparent very early that the wad of it, which Moth values so much, will prove to be more than just a McGuffin.

Zift is a beautifully shot movie put together clumsily. If it could sustain the excellence of its first act throughout, it might have been talked of as a masterpiece of world cinema. As it is, it fails to meet the high standards it sets for itself and descends rapidly into a predictable noir-by-numbers. Still, it’s very watchable indeed, and at a compact ninety minutes, it soon flies by.

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