Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov’s sophomore feature is a multi-faceted and captivating work, actively building on the pathos-laden approach to narrative taken in their debut, The Lesson. Framed as part of a trilogy, with the aforementioned work the first instalment, Slava was also inspired by excerpts from newspaper stories in Bulgaria, with the majority of them stemming from the early 2000s. This distinct process of writing Slava is evident in the strengths the film displays in conveying normalcy whilst throwing cliché and expectation to the wayside. Grozeva and Valchanov’s work is a confident foray into corruption, class, and the blind spots in perception that amplify them. Combined with a rousing visual palette, alongside intricately written characters met with largely charismatic performances, Slava is further testament to the directors’ eye for finding flair in the familiar and enchanting the everyday.
The most notable strength at the core of Grozeva and Valchanov’s film is their preference for an inventive and engrossing range of characters defined by normalcy in a way that eschews the obvious. Slava opts for depth in character design in lieu of a clearly likeable lead. Each figure draws and discards the audience’s empathy back and forth throughout the film’s duration, with the cast carving out layers of depth, nuance, and intricacy in these roles. Railroad worker Tsanko Petrov (Stefan Denolyubov) and Bulgaria Ministry of PR Head Julia Staikova (Margita Gosheva) spend the film in a conflict neither are quite aware of the scale of. The former begins as a moral, working-class man with a defined stutter, finding a large sum of money on railway tracks and choosing to turn it in. Julia, an at-all-costs workaholic—one-part controlling, another part out of control—thrusts Tsanko into the spotlight because of his actions, inadvertently destroying his way of life.
Slava’s drama and comedy is distinguished in its contrasts, with Krum Rodriguez’ approach to cinematography comfortably accentuating this. In a film of atmospheric variety—at points a black comedy, at others a darker piece of sociopolitical drama—Rodriguez’ camerawork achieves a visual palette that mirrors this constant back-and-forth of tension and relief. In frequent close-up and extreme close-up shots, lingering on stressed facial features—with focus pulling in and out—the cinematography becomes essential in moulding the atmosphere in each scene; whether it’s Tsanko finding the money or Julia drinking herself into a haze before the film’s chaotic finale. This sense of balance is coherent in the entire visual sphere of the film—whether it’s the careful shift between handheld and sturdier shots, or the stark juxtapositions in colour-grading between Tsanko and Julia’s respective worlds.1
In the end, Slava derives its strength from a nimble play of baiting its audience; the film pushes narrative expectations, before tugging them away and accelerating in the other direction. When a politician bestows an award on Tsanko for turning in the money, he seems excited and nervous, and it isn’t until—trying to break the ice—Tsanko is asked if he has anything he wants to know about that he responds “our paychecks”. The strength here is that Grozeva and Valchanov’s plays out with confidence; it knows exactly what it wants to be, with the audience perpetually unsure until the film’s conclusion.
Tsanko’s eventual quest becomes his journey to get his old watch back, after losing it in the ceremony where he was awarded a new watch, which stops working, for his deed. Julia’s loss of the watch coincides with her own midlife crisis of her work and relationship reaching a crossroad. Grozeva and Valchanov manage to turn these relatively mundane events into both a gripping narrative, a refreshing comedy, and a political indictment of the flip-side of the convenience of corruption.