Stephan Komandarev and Simeon Ventsislavov: Rounds

in goEast – 20th Festival of Central and Eastern European Film

by Angelo Mitchievici

After a screenplay signed by Stephan Komandarev and Simeon Ventsislavov, Rounds (V krag, 2019) brings to the fore three on-duty police crews, who make their night patrol in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria. Two of them, the dirty cops Krasi (Ivan Barnev) and Ivo (Assen Blatechki), despite their stubborn, stiff attitude, are joking, bringing up topics such as sex and the European Union on the same intellectual level. Two others, Elena (Irini Jambonas) and Marin (Stefan Denolyubov), are recent, temperamental lovers, who quarrel almost conjugally; and Vasil (Stoyan Doychev) and Todor (Vassil Vassilev), are simply good cops but brought in front of events that test their correctness.

The film starts with the poignant dialogue between the two cops Krasi and Ivo on the unequal distribution of virility in communist society compared to capitalist society. The two agree that because of overly ideological, short and apathetic national television programs, communist Bulgarian couples in compensation paid more attention to sex, while castrating-consumerist capitalist society diminished libido by offering entertainment on all channels. The controversial discussion resumes on a higher level with the lyrical, heated theme “Before it was better.” It’s been 30 years since the fall of the communist regime in Bulgaria, and the next day is announced problematic due to the scandal caused by demolition of a Red Army monument in Sofia connected with the celebration of the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. One police officer acclaims Bulgaria’s entry into the EU and NATO, keeping distance from Vladimir Putin’s Russia. The other envisages Trump as a caricature, and emphasizes the disadvantages of the market economy and poor living conditions in capitalism, pointing to developed countries in Western Europe cynically pursuing their interests by exploiting small countries such as Bulgaria. The police officer with anti-European views foresees member states’ departures from the European Union and the fact that Bulgaria will ironically be the last country stuck in the project because it doesn’t satisfy the requirements for leaving the EU! In any case, both police officers agree on one thing: in Bulgaria things are going very badly and their country ranks last among EU countries: “the periphery of the periphery.” The sarcastic irony and sour comedy that weaves the surface of the discussions are fuelled by the mind sets related to what Benedict Anderson called “imagined communities”. As Serguei Oushakine called them, “jokes of repression” were the supreme intelligence of the people living in Eastern Bloc countries. The joke is here the “fable”, the expression of a philosophy of life in the Balkans associated with an acute, bitter awareness of failure. And Komandarev indulges in a visual joke: the two officers catch on to the three Romany people as they steal metal letters marking the names of the dead on the graves in a cemetery. The fun begins when the three are forced to say their names: Rambo, Silvester and Stallone. Busy with their own stuff, migrant trafficking, the dirty cops use an elegant, “European” solution—as one of them calls it—, ordering the three to put the letters back in exchange for freedom, but also for the return of their ID documents and cell phones. The punishment at the crime scene, however, proves to be problematic when, after the departure of the police, the three petty criminals find out that, without exception, they are illiterate!

The narrative of Vasil and Todor revolves around saving a kid, the kind of brilliant chess player beaten by two zealous young neo-fascists of whom he makes a caustic portrait not without contextual relevance. Again, a sad story turns into a comic one, the rescue is called to an identical location, but in another city, Varna: let’s remember Cristi Puiu’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005). Now the regulation prohibits police officers from intervening instead of medical staff. Taking the huge risk of the kid dying on the way to the hospital, Vasil violates the rules and takes the child to the emergency room with the police car, saving his life, yet without escaping the sanction.           

Perhaps the most intense is the story of Elena and Marin, who have a love affair. Having divorced her alcoholic husband, Elena is worried about the situation of their daughter, Maria, who is in hospital with appendicitis. The bribe, as a current fact of social life in Bulgaria, becomes the object of gallows humor, of which the morbid joke with the anesthetist is a spectacular example: the doctor asks for bribes not for the anesthesia, which he says is free, but for waking up from it. A seemingly petty incident amplifies this by resonating in Marin’s nebulous past as a drug dealer and occasional thief. The police team is sent in search of a patient with Alzheimer who has escaped a local care home. This is the old Mr. Gaytandjiev, Marin’s former teacher of Bulgarian language and literature, who had changed his fate, taking him into his care and making him a regional boxing champion. In a state of advanced physical degradation, Marin cannot reconcile with leaving the old man in the horrifying institution; so he brings him to his former apartment for one night, asks him whom he confuses with his son, to rid him of tormented wail. Death can sometimes be the only solution to unhappiness, suffering and degradation in the Wild East.              

As a common denominator, while making their rounds the three police crews meet along the railway that separates the sectors assigned to each crew. Here lies lifeless body of a young junkie called Lazarus (a name with significance). Without hesitation, two of the crews decide to dispose the “problem” by throwing the body on the other side, where another crew is responsible, in order not to give way to a bushy bureaucracy meant to occupy them all night long. Only Todor rejects the compromise; it takes the skillful persuasion of his colleague Vasil who invokes the celebration of his birthday the next day, to convince him of doing the same. Thus, in the end Lazarus can rise from the dead and, on his erratic journey through the cemetery, admire the involuntarily Dadaist work of the three illiterate Romany people, letters and numbers randomized instead of the names they had diligently dismantled at first.              

The film relies on the alternation between dramatic and comic, and the director uses the night to reveal situations, creating a picture of society as a whole through these sketches of particular existences caught in a snapshot. We also have a little nostalgia, a derelict cinema, an abandoned old man, a beaten child—enough material for a melodrama. Komandarev makes neither a social satire nor a critique of the system, but renders a state that captures life in its essence. Even if presented apparently in a minor key, the interrogations produce a no less serious reflection on the current society, on the precarious prospects that ordinary people have, on endemic corruption and widespread poverty of former communist countries, on an unsuccessful transition, on ideals that have deteriorated over time, on Bulgaria’s uncertain future. Indeed, corruption is at home everywhere in Komandarev movies, here represented by corrupt police officers, but also by the local tycoon who spills his pride from a luxury car accompanied by a pipette. One of the policemen sums up the dilemma perhaps best: “I lived on Class Struggle Street, which has now become the European Avenue. But nothing has changed!”

Angelo Mitchievici
Edited by Birgit Beumers