This sharp and dour film can only be described as Bulgarian film noir. From the lustrous black-and-white photography to the laconic voice-over narration, this grim tale of cheap hoods, double-crosses and femme fatales could slip right between any of the iconic American films of the 1940s and '50s, were it not for the Eastern Bloc setting and ever-present references to Soviet oppression.
Director Javor Gardev brings a slick and polished visual style that belies his status as a rookie. Working from a script by Vladislav Todorov, based on his own novel, Gardev builds layer upon layer of period mood. Doom hangs over the protagonist like night descending after the setting sun, a matter of inarguable fate that he resents, but never really defies.
Zahary Baharov gives a veiled but powerful performance as Moth, the con man hero of this tale. After being jailed for many years, he is paroled. His plans are simple: Find his wife, visit the grave of the son he never got to meet, and beat it for a tropical paradise. But before he even leaves the prison grounds, he's picked up by some military toughs and taken to a dank torture chamber where he's stripped naked and electrocuted. His interlocutor is Slug, his former partner in crime, who has risen to a place of prominence in the Soviet order. The heist that sent Moth to prison went bad, and Slug is convinced that he knows the location of the huge black diamond they were after.
The film loses a bit of its pace around two-thirds of the way through, as Moth bumps into an array of underworld characters, each of whom seems to have an anecdote or story to tell. The film unspools in a non-temporal fashion, intercutting Moth's current quest with his criminal life and time in prison, where he was schooled by an older con with a glass eye.
The film's title refers to a tar-like pitch used to seal asphalt roads, which is also the name of a chewing tobacco-like substance popular in Bulgaria. Colloquially, the word refers to human excrement. There's certainly a dank and foul view of mankind seeping throughout the film -- particularly womankind. Moth's prison friend warns him that a woman is synonymous with treachery, and the allegory of the praying mantis (who kills and eats her male partner during copulation) is the central theme for Moth's relationship with his wife.
Rather than being off-putting, though, the film's rank misogyny acts as yet another stone that weighs upon Moth's heart. It's the story of a guy sent to prison for a crime he didn't commit, beaten, tortured and poisoned, and though it all we sense this is no worse than he expects out of life. "Zift" is brash, sexy and wonderfully depressing.