Sofia will break your heart

“Eastern Plays” (2009) is a realist film that combines subtle humor, breathtaking imagery and unsurpassed acting.

 “Eastern Plays” (2009) is a realist film that combines subtle humor, breathtaking imagery and unsurpassed acting. Director Kamen Kalev juxtaposes the lives of two men, weaving an intriguing, twisted, yet nonetheless realistic plot together before the eyes of audiences.

The film takes place in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, a city with a beautiful name but an eroding spirit. Expecting breathtaking Mediterranean scenery, I was surprised. The city is gray and lifeless, with some aid from a lens filter, I would assume. Kalev captures the essence very well—a metropolis of graffiti and rust—and the people within it seem to have no real reason to embrace the desolate and vacant land. It is something of a modern ghost town and, as follows, its few citizens are zombies of their own demise.

Audiences trail the life of Itso (Hristo Hristov), a laboring woodcrafter and former methadone user. His addiction prevails, and he often must drink beer in order to dull his withdrawal. Meanwhile, the relatively young Georgi (Ovanes Torosyan) reluctantly becomes a member of a fascist neo-Nazi gang. Fate intervenes when Itso and Georgi find themselves together in the middle of one of the gang’s horrific beatings of a group of Turkish tourists from Istanbul. The characters’ personalities completely unravel during this exciting pinnacle of the film, as Georgi flees from both guilt and horror while Itso steps up as a brave and altruistic protagonist.

His deed is rewarded, and Itso finds himself in love with the daughter of the family, Isil. As their relationship begins, it is apparent that Itso has been looking in all the wrong places for the meaning of existence. Isil’s fresh, vivacious soul brings light into the heart of a man who, for too much of his life, has spent time in a dreary, cold and lonely place. At the same time, Georgi, contemplating his actions during the beating, begins to question the nature of his existence and searches for a new perspective in life.

While both characters ultimately enter their transitions, the film is not to be taken as a Hollywood happy-ender. “Eastern Plays” resembles more what it appears to be calling to attention: a set of intertwining tragic plays. Despite a rebirth of most characters, the main character, Sofia herself, still remains a city of ruin.

Ironically and heartbreakingly, Hristo Hristov died of a drug overdose before the end of the production. The realism from the film is unsurpassed in that its characters know the city that they represent and themselves live these lives onscreen and off.

Half-documentary, half-play, Kalev’s masterpiece cannot be ignored. It is revolutionary for the world of film; it is quite frankly one of the few movies which so carefully casts picking a majority of non-professionals, who rather than know how to fit the molds of particular characters, already live the lives of their on-screen counterparts.

“Eastern Plays” is recommended for all film lovers. The symbolism is wonderful, the narration is choppy and real, the handheld cinematography engulfs audiences with a sense of constant turmoil, and magically, as film is supposed to do, the movie embraces viewers with an overall sense of bitter sweetness.