Zift: Socialist Noir, the complete title of Vladislav Todorov’s cult 2006 novel, is perhaps as accurate a description of its 2008 film adaptation as you’re going to find – even then missing its gleeful comic-absurdism, poetic nihilism and unquenchable romance. Indeed, faithfully explaining what ZIFT is about, without spoiling any of its myriad surprises, is practically impossible. The setting is Sofia, Bulgaria, 20 years after the coup d’état of ’44. “The Moth” (Zahary Baharov) has been imprisoned for all of these two decades, but upon an early release – for introducing Communism into the prison – he is whisked to the public baths by a sweaty, Woody Harrelson-type attaché. He’s stripped naked and tortured in 35mm, before director Javor Gardev skips back in time to the early 1940’s, shot in 16mm. Here the story of a diamond heist unfurls, with plenty of sub-Tarantino dialogue (much of the film is driven by incidental anecdotes; Magnolia-esque urban myths) contrasting the classically hardboiled setup. Naturally each party is looking out for themself, including Moth’s lover Ada (Tanya Ilieva), who he meets in 8mm. Their plan involves the lifting of a pronounced African penis, but believe me, that’s possibly the most normal aspect of this bonkers caper…
Stripped down to its butt-cheeks ZIFT emerges as a pretty routine thriller, but Gardev injects enough ink-black humour, visual experimentation and literary finesse to stand apart from his contemporaries (and influences). The film begins with a side-character recounting the tale of a septic-truck driver who sought revenge on his wife’s lover – a pastry chef – by discharging tonnes of sludge into his apartment (zift, among other meanings, is the slang term for shit), ending on the character noting the difference between moral and material damages. This sequence will become clearer towards the film’s climax (pay attention to the repeated phrase, “the end is the beginning“) but it perfectly establishes tone, and throughout the film, as Moth descends deeper and deeper into the black heart of Sofia – a journey somewhere betweenWeek End (Godard, 1967) and After Hours (Scorsese, 1985), with a little bit of La Haine (Kassovitz, 1995) – he encounters a colourful cast of caricatures, each more odd than the last. We start with the one-eyed crook Van Wurst (Mihail Mutafov), whose moniker originates from the botched Barcelona job in which an antique clock (storing valued jewels) ejected its cuckooless spring into his orb. In fact, most characters are named after their visual appearance – the villainous Slug (Vladimir Penev), for example, whose stumpy human shell protects the greasy mollusk within.
While ZIFT is notable for its striking black-and-white aesthetic, carefully composed flashback structure and commanding leading turn, what’ll really reward repeat viewings (I watched it twice before writing this review) is its absolute oddness and disregard for formula. Most films based on books attempt to distance themselves from the source material, but Gardev has completely embraced Todorov’s poetic meter, employing it to articulate Moth’s innermost feelings. Many standard scenes are lifted by his voiceover, such as his revealed disdain for a sarcastic, chain-smoking nurse; “nicotine phlegm is ripping her throat.” This same approach is lent to the film’s assortment of storytellers, most of whom litter the hospital’s waiting room, telling tales about flammable cyclists and the accidental beheading of a hair salon. It’s all as gleefully silly as its sounds, but juxtaposed with bracing ultra-violence and threadbare crime plotting these stories are lent an odd streak of pathos. We get the feeling that one day Moth will be the punchline of an urban myth, such is the looniness of his plight.
The film premiered on HBO in 2009 (one imagines it slipping comfortably between Oz and The Wire), but ZIFT only now appears on UK shores. Better late than never, I suppose, but it’s a shame that this one has been left to gather dust for so long. Gardev doesn’t appear to have any new projects in development, and neither Baharov or the gorgeous Ilieva (who share an intense – and intensely offbeat – sex scene) have made any subsequent films to break the international circuit. I can only hope that this DVD – released by EUREKA! – will garner enough attention to ensure that I see this talented group again in the near future…
ZIFT is released on DVD in the UK 20th February 2012.
Solid presentation but slim extras, with only a trailer and stills gallery rounding out the vanilla package. Shame. With its complex literary source, Communist themes and experimental visual style, I’ll bet there was a great behind-the-scenes doc to be made from ZIFT. A missed opportunity indeed.
Director: Javor Gardev
Writers: Vladislav Todorov (novel), Vladislav Todorov (script)
Stars: Zahary Baharov, Tanya Ilieva, Vladimir Penev
Runtime: 92 min