Directed by Svetla Tsotsorkova
Written by Svetoslav Ovtcharov, Svetla Tsotsorkova, and Ventsislav Vasilev
Thirst, Bulgarian actress Svetla Tsotsorkova’s feature debut just premiered in the New Directors section at the San Sebastian Film Festival and is currently screening at the Haifa International Film Festival. It stars teenage newcomers Monika Naydenova and Alexander Benev alongside Bulgarian screen and theatre veterans Vasil Mihailov, Ivaylo Hristov, Svetla Yancheva and Stefan Mavrodiev.
Thirst is a minimalist countryside drama set in rural southwest Bulgaria, in a region affected by chronic summer drought where a nameless family of three urban transplants, a teenage son (Alxander Benev), a father living with the aftereffects of two heart attacks (Ivaylo Hristov) and a mother who supports the family as a laundry contractor for the region’s hotels, live in a hilltop house overlooking a mountain valley. The drought affecting the area renders the laundry business unreliable and an itinerant water driller (Vasil Mihailov) and his teenage daughter (Monika Naydenova) are grudgingly contracted by the family to drill a well after the water diviner daughter locates the presence of water on the property.
The drama is propelled by the nascent web of interweaving desires among the five protagonists, with the teenagers arguably having more prominent, fleshed-out characterization. Their acquaintance proceeds in spurts of insults, dares (the girl challenges the boy to drink a bottle of vodka, leading to the boy passing out and giving rise to one of the funniest sequences in an otherwise austere script), wrestles, and finally an experimental kiss (the girl warns the boy he may regret it), mostly driven by her provocateur nature. While the girl’s character – a hyper-provocative tomboyish teenage seductress – is a cinematic cliché, and Monika Naydenova’s performance feels somewhat overacted and theatrical, Alexander Benev is excellent as the somewhat naïve and confused teenager. and Svetla Yancheva is finely nuanced as the somewhat rough yet sensitive and energetic mother coping with the hardships of rural isolation, a state both physical and emotional. The adult male performances by Ivaylo Hristov and Vasil Mihailov are both convincingly understated, stripped of any references to their star status in Bulgarian cinema. The decision to visually hint at rather than depict outright the clumsy, unintuitive fling between the mother and the well digger is a wise one (we get the sense the filmmakers are saving the unlikely couple some on-screen embarrassment) as is the ambiguity of the intentionally unsettling, inconclusive exchanges between the father and the well-digger’s daughter. The girl obviously likes to play with fire and this is one provocation too many, one that paves the way for the film’s incendiary ending.
No doubt actress Svetla Tsotsorkova has a made a strong directorial debut here, exhibiting a fine-tuned sense for filming the languid mountain landscapes and sparingly using naturalistic dialogue (except for a few lines by Monika Naydenova that feel contrived and over the top). The natural beauty of the exterior sequences is aptly juxtaposed with the indifference of the mountain to its human inhabitants’ hardships and their insignificance (beautifully rendered in the freak tornado sequence with the hotel laundry helplessly flapping against the backdrop of the hill flank), and the contrast between the disappearing way of life of old time donkey-riding villagers and newcomers is subtly and unpretentiously depicted (in this story, urban protagonists in a mountain setting try to vainly overcome nature’s ways). If there is a weakness in Thirst’s otherwise well-constructed flow, it is perhaps the heavy-handed use of symbolism; we are regularly treated to a close-up of an object that will prove significant later on, and the drought/thirst/fire metaphor is overused. Nevertheless, Thirst is a fine debut that foretells Svetla Tsotsorkova’s potential.
The 31st Haifa International Film Festival, artistically directed by Pnina Blayer, will take place between September 26th and October 9th, 2015.