The married writing and directing team of Petar Valchanov and Kristina Grozeva have a history of critical success; their previous dramas, and one documentary, have been showered with awards at film festivals around the world. With The Father (original title Bashtata), they try their hands at comedy. Coming from its premiere at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival in the Czech Republic, where it took the jury prize for best film, The Father moved on to the Toronto International Film Festival, where its offbeat blend of comedy, human drama, and sorrow was well received. It opens at the London Film Festival in October.
The initially simple family story begins with father Vasil (Ian Savov) and his son Pavel (Ivan Barnev) brought together for the funeral of Vasil’s beloved wife, Pavel’s mother. From the first moment, gathered in the village graveyard, the friction between father and son is apparent, although the reason for it remains unknown. It quickly becomes clear that Vasil is more badly shaken by the unexpected death that he at first lets on. Pavel tries to be sympathetic as his gruff and irritable father begins to find vague signs that his late wife is trying to communicate with him, and to gently steer him away from the idea. When an overwrought elderly relative claims that the dead woman had contacted her by telephone, Vasil’s idea of messages from beyond becomes a fixation, and Pavel finds himself burdened with his father’s increasingly erratic behaviour. (Co-director Petar Vanchanov, in a post-screening discussion at the Toronto Film Festival, said the inspiration for the entire screenplay was an event from his own life. When his mother died, an aunt claimed she’d received a telephone call from the deceased woman; as a child, Valchanov had wanted to believe it.)
The unfolding story is seen through the eyes of Pavel, a painfully reserved man burdened with an overdeveloped sense of responsibility. As he juggles phone calls from his workplace, demanding completion of a project, and from his pregnant and needy wife begging his return, Pavel reluctantly extends his visit in order to watch over his father. The situation spirals further and further out of Pavel’s control, as Vasil insists on visiting a local psychic, determined to find a way to contact his deceased wife. The comical side of the situation emerges, piling one incongruity on another, as Pavel chases his father around the countryside, attempting to forestall the old man as he follows the psychic’s bizarre instructions. Frustrated by his own ineffectiveness, and still managing phone demands from outside, Pavel abortively attempts to involve the authorities, consults a doctor, tracks Vasil through the woods where he has been sent by his psychic to sleep beside a meteor, distracts and removes Vasil from the situation, only to find himself back at square one when Vasil repeatedly evades him and returns to his disreputable psychic guide.
Between repeated episodes of pursuit and escape, the relationship between father and son is worked through, by means of endless arguments, accusations, reminiscences, and negotiations. These discussions are at once funny, poignant, and aggravating, capturing with little exaggeration the universal nature of family disputes. A scene in which Vasil and Pavel, while driving, rapidly argue their way through thirty years of minor disagreements is funny partly because it is so universally recognisable. The intermittent bickering serves as more than comedy; it slowly reveals more about the two men and their relationship.
Pavel, diffident and too conscientious, has hidden his wife’s pregnancy from his father to avoid distracting from his mother’s death; has hidden his mother’s death from his pregnant wife to avoid distressing her; and is now busily sustaining his various cover stories while trying to calm his father and restore order to his family. It turns out his father is weighed down by some of the same sense of guilt of responsibility; and they manage to find common ground at last, and to work through the situation. The title comes to have layers of meaning: Vasil is the obvious subject, but Pavel himself is also an expectant father, despite having kept the fact a secret; and he experiences the role of parent and caretaker to his own distraught father.
The humour in The Father ranges from the broadly slapstick, which sometimes goes overboard (probably the film’s chief shortcoming), as when Vasil impulsively steals a farm cart and horse and flees, chased by angry farmers and his alarmed son, to the amusingly familiar, to the comically subtle and strange. Odd background items stand out: followers of the local psychic occasionally wandering by through the forest, trying to locate the site of the magical meteor; the couple at the table next to Pavel and Vasil’s in a café, having a pointless but strangely intense conversation about cheese.
Then there is the question of quince jam. Pavel’s wife repeatedly begs him to bring back homemade quince jam, for which she has an intense craving, and it becomes the Holy Grail of Pavel’s hometown adventure. Pavel encounters it periodically in the course of his ordeal, even falls foul of the law over it; but only in the quietly moving final scene is he able to fulfill his wife’s request, and at the same time finally reconcile with his father. It is a scene co-director Vanchanov considered important, a resolution of the film’s various conflicts symbolised by a simple home recipe. As Vanchanov informed the audience, it took almost two hours to satisfactorily film a scene lasting a few minutes. It is also the culmination of a wonderful chemistry between the two actors playing father and son, who manage to capture perfectly the very mixed sentiments that can exist between parent and child.