A Second Chance

in 25th Sofia International Film Festival

by Manuel Halpern

The Sofia International Film Festival took place offline in the Bulgarian capital but the FIPRESCI Jury performed its duty at a distance, due to the travel restrictions. Our job was to pick one of the twelve films that compose the International Competition, all of them first and second features. The general impression is that, in most of them, it was pretty clear that they were made by directors taking their first steps. There was a typical lack of maturity, sometimes in development, other times on the temptation to put too many ideas in just one film. For instants, in Bedridden (2020), a surprising film from Mongolia, the director Byamba Sakhya shows high skills in cinematography, with amazing and overloaded scene designs but it all seems pointless and excessive; he could not use it in context in a natural semiotic way. He will certainly become a greater director, if he finds the balance.

Another good example is The Pink Cloud (A Núvem Rosa, 2021), directed by the brazilian Iuli Gerbase. The film had the amazing intuition of predicting a very similar lockdown to the one we are all living in (with toxic clouds instead of virus). Unfortunately, it is unable to develop an otherwise great idea in a coherent way.

One of the nicest exceptions was German Lessons (Уроци по немски, 2020), by the Bulgarian director Pavel G. Vesnakov, that won the FIPRESCI prize. Although it is his first feature, the director has claimed important prizes and recognition with his shorts. Pride (Чест, 2013) won the Grand Prix in Clermont-Ferrand, and several other prizes including SIFF’s.

German Lessons is settled on a strong character. Nikola (great interpretation by Vasil Banov) is a middle-age driver that tries to rebuild his past life before emigrating to Germany. While driving, he listens to some tapes of German classes that shall prepare him for an easier integration in the foreigner country. But learning German seems easy compared to everything he proposes himself to do before the departure. In a 24 hour journey, Nikola tries to organize, solve up, and conciliate everything he’s messed up along the time. He attempts to reconcile with his kids and ex-wife, whom he abandoned years ago, after a report of domestic violence. He also wants to take care of his parents, particularly his father.

Nikola is an intriguing and contradictory character. He easily sweeps between love and violence, tenderness and grumpiness. Many times he doesn’t care about the means to reach his goals, revealing a deep social disability. One of the best scenes is when, after stealing a dog to give to his father, he drives through the avenue, with the pet by his side, and they start barking at each other, as if he finally finds someone who shares the same anger and speaks the same language.

German Lessons is an inner drama, realistically filmed, of a man who wants to reconcile with his past life before departing to a ‘promise land’. We never reach Germany with him, and we are not sure if that one-day effort will attain some positive external consequences. But it’s all about having a second chance, a restart, to be reborn… And a second chance is also what most of the directors in this competition need and deserve.

Manuel Halpern
Edited by Savina Petkova