What happens when a totalitarian state infects its citizens with rampant paranoia through constant surveillance? This is one of the themes explored by satirical, surreal Bulgarian comedy The Color of The Chameleon. Batko Staminov (played by Ruscen Vidinliev) is a young man adrift in the world. After getting himself discharged from the army by faking epilepsy he’s recruited by Communist era Bulgaria’s National Security who pick him out as a natural liar who inspires trust in others and has a twisted imagination (which proves to be unnervingly accurate). His first assignment is a success when he infiltrates a suspected group of subversives who meet to discuss a book called ‘Zincograph’ that hinges on a zincographer who sets up his own network of informants to constantly spy on each other by pretending to be a secret agent. However, Batko’s recommendations about how the state can eavesdrop on people in zero gravity are not so well received by his handler. Sadly Batko’s career with National Security is unintentionally cut short by his amateur taxidermist landlady eating a chocolate egg that contains instructions on what agents should do if Communism falls, leading to him being dismissed!
Frustrated, our protagonist puts into practice what he learned from ‘Zincograph’ and forges himself a National Security ID that he uses to infiltrate a group of self obsessed intellectuals. One by one Batko fools them into working for him under his guise as a state agent for the fictional S.E.X. department he invents; that is supposedly working, amongst other aims, to control spontaneous orgasms! He sets them watching each other and on macabre twisted missions, just because he can. Because they are used to state control and surveillance, his recruits never question his authenticity. Once communism does fall, Batko uses the files he built up to cause mayhem in the fledgling democracy and chaos for his former playthings plus employers.
Ruscen Vidinliev is brilliant in the lead, even in a strange plot like this he makes the character of Batko effortlessly believable as the cynical puppeteer pulling the strings of those he deceives. There’s a natural magnetism about him, yet at the same time he appears to be a blank soul who can adorn himself with whatever personality he desires. Underlying this is an all too believable psychopathic and cynical approach to others. Batko struck me in some scenes as a slightly less homicidal ‘Tom Ripley’, the lead character played by Matt Damon in The Talented Mr. Ripley (Anthony Minghella 1999). Rousy Chanev who plays Batko’s National Security handler also gives a strong performance. Another noteworthy turn is Desa Krasova as Radostina Polyanska, Batko’s corset wearing, hamster strangling landlady.
At times the plot is hard to follow and at others it makes little sense, but these reflect the absurdity of a country run in total secrecy where everyone is monitored. The romance between Batko and a cinema worker goes nowhere and seems a bit pointless; as do the surreal black and white scenes that echo Casablanca which Batko and his girlfriend watch together. The juxtaposition between the absurdism and the espionage movie elements does grate; a happy balance is never quite achieved.
Interestingly, the screenplay was written by Vladislav Todorov who also wrote the novel ‘Zincograph’ on which the film’s based. He was also a producer, so it is a safe bet that what is seen on screen very much reflects the source material.
Overall The Color of The Chameleon, flaws aside, is an intriguing watch. That it is Director Emil Christov’s first feature makes it even more impressive. Both he and Vidinliev could be bound for great things.
Cast: Ruschen Vidinliev, Rousy Chanev, Desa Krasova, Hristo Garbov
Runtime: 111 mins