"Seamstresses": Three Madonnas from Bulgarian Nowhere By Antonia Kovacheva

in 12nd Sofia International Film Festival

by Antonia Kovacheva

The digs in an old Sofia mansion had a few square meters surface but the hosted parties were in reverse proportion to the small room. An unimaginable number of people, enjoying various post-high-school statuses, used to gather there. Somehow, most of the guests managed to remain conscious after imperial amounts of spirits, philosophizing until the first morning trams whether Peter Brook was the greatest in the world or Grotowsky. It was in the early 1970s. We had nothing and our freedom was infinite. When you are still on your way to conquering the world, the poverty of youth is a quite relative concept. Sooner or later, everybody should pay the price for getting his or her piece of this world. And very often it turns out that in the neglect of our social and worldly virginity we have experienced the greatest freedom of our lives. Afterwards, that freedom is either turned into a personal independence or lost forever. But there is always a price to be paid.

Three beautiful girls from a small Bulgarian town are on their way to conquer the world in Seamstresses (Shivachki), the Bulgarian entry by the writer-director Lyudmil Todorov — a subtle modern drama that freely oscillates between lyrical comedy and melodrama. At a time when the Bulgarian cinema is slowly getting into shape after a very long crisis, and on screen appear more well-made movies, Seamstresses raises the expectations for the national film production even higher. The movie draws its energy from the authenticity of the plot, whose realism is both confident and poetical. The story lacks any literary (script) preconditions that could hinder the personages with motivation or situations, reminding some closet filmmaker’s deductions, rather than the real life. At the same time, the director’s style is far from the minimalism of traditional contemporary social dramas. There is, of course, a social drama, but its accents are tripled (three central female destinies) and then displaced on unexpected moments of the characters’ development. The vision is colorful, warm and friendly even to the bad guys and places in the movie.

The twenty-year-old women, bounded by inseparable friendship since their childhood, come to the capital Sofia in search of work and happiness. While it is their firm belief that not everything is for sale, by no means would they go back to their hometown. Seamstress by trade, they feel protected but the big city is more interested in their youth and beauty than in the skills of their hands. Dora is the fighter of the trio, the aggressive Amazon who calls things by their proper names. The cry-baby Katya is like a frightened deer that ran out of the quiet forest into the highway with its speeding cars. Elena remains silent most of the time but her big blue eyes are speaking instead and her patient loyalty turns out to be her greatest weapon. The girls rent a room in an old apartment in Sofia. Only the mould, high ceilings and the Venetian mosaic in the entrance hall remind of the building’s former beauty. The roommates include: a young bodyguard with his living-in girl — a meat merchant; a slightly crazy musician, addicted to light drugs and his visiting lover and muse, a pop-folk singer.

In Seamstresses the big city, the three girls and the people they meet as the fate has willed, are neither in a blissful harmony, nor at enmity with each other. The personages are not divided into positive and negative, from the country or the capital, victims and criminals. Each of them is a natural part of a normal social landscape with its light and shadowy places — like everywhere in the world. Each choice has its positives and negatives. Life offers to youth its temptations, traps and illusions. Youth accepts or declines or just tries them with the strength of its purity and the vulnerability of its naiveté. Wounds and pain are unavoidable, but they are also a natural part of the landscape. That is the way things are for centuries. In fact it is only the scenery that changes.

The inner harmony of Seamstresses is most evident in the acting, especially in the performances of the three leading actresses. All of them are young, really quite beautiful — each one of them in her own way, relatively inexperienced in their art and dangerously talented. Their film characters fall into situations both insidious and ordinary — to believe that the pimp just wants to be your boyfriend, to hope that an affair with a married man will not hurt you, to try the oldest profession in world out of weakness, despair or wish for revenge and to come out of it. Instead of sending girls into the banality of everyday life the masterly script and the psychoanalytical camera of the cinematographer Emil Hristov free the impressive talent of the young actresses. Three new stars of Bulgarian cinema are born in front of our eyes.

At first glance Seamstresses looks too modest for the world festival circuits. Neither its subject is sensational nor its way of filming. What makes it valuable is the elegance of the film language, the passionate storytelling and the beautiful understanding that in real life as well as in the movies small joys and small tragedies are often one and the same thing.