Sometimes death has no meaning. Not everyone leaves this world with one last profound thought, one last distinguished moment. Sometimes, in fact oftentimes, you’re just here, and then suddenly you’re not. There’s nothing more to it. Not that everyone can accept this. That search for meaning where there is none can be far more harmful than simply accepting the reality of someone’s absence. The Father, a Bulgarian comedy-drama by husband and wife team Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov, fully understands both the pain of death’s meaninglessness and the full weight of the arduous process of moving on. In an artistic landscape filled with movies, TV shows, books, and plays about loss, The Father stands out.
The movie opens at the funeral of a woman named Valentina – here we meet our two protagonists: Vasil, her husband, and Pavel, their son. In the days following the funeral, their neighbor receives calls that she swears come from Valentina from beyond the grave. Vasil, driven nearly mad by grief and in a desperate attempt to find meaning, seeks out a local cult leader to interpret this message, as Pavel follows, trying to quickly lead his father back to rationality so that he can get back to his work and his pregnant wife. It’s not necessarily the most obvious premise for what is, ostensibly at least, a comedy, but it’s able to mine its material for a lot of laughs.
The Father is at its funniest when the humor is the natural outflow of the drama. It opens, for example, with a very funny sequence in which Vasil, struggling with the pain of losing his life-long partner, insists that his son takes a photo of her right before she is lowered into the ground. It’s at once a funny but profoundly sad moment – sure, Vasil’s insistence that they remove the lid from the coffin so his less-than-enthusiastic son can take a picture of a corpse is odd and amusing, but it’s clearly fueled by deep emotional anguish. The Father finds a dark humor about truly devastating moments, and does so without sacrificing the essential dignity of these characters. Grozeva and Valchanov almost never make the mistake of sacrificing the drama or coherent world-building for the sake of a laugh.
However, not every laugh is created equal. If The Father’s sense of humor works best when it naturally flows from the drama, The Father’s sense of humor works worst when it doesn’t. Admittedly, that’s not too often, but every once in a while they commit to a comedic bit that doesn’t quite work as well, that serves more as a distraction from the drama as it does in service of it. That doesn’t always mean those scenes aren’t funny – there’s a particularly good scene involving jam at a police station that comes to mind – but they don’t always feel like they serve a larger narrative purpose.
That’s not to say that just because comedy doesn’t serve a broader dramatic purpose means that it’s bad or unnecessary. My fellow audience members seemed to really eat up the comedy. I suppose it comes down to taste about pacing – scenes where the comedy serves itself rather than advancing a narrative slow down the film overall. That’s not good or bad, it’s just the reality. What matters is whether it’s worth doing and while often the answer is yes, occasionally the answer is no.
Even so, these scenes are bolstered by very strong performances by Ivan Barnev, who plays Pavel, and Ivan Savov, who plays Vasil. They have a strong father-son dynamic, hell they even look like they could be related (they’re not). I feel the strain of their mother’s absence on their relationship – Vasil, a normally rational man driven by intellectual pursuits, is driven the cultish religiosity and frequent emotional outbursts; Pavel, a naturally shy and non-confrontational man, is driven to extremes to keep his father safe, and to get back to his family. Both engage in morally questionable activities in pursuit of their goal but still remain sympathetic. Even if what they’re doing is wrong, it’s hard not to at least understand how their grief could drive them here.
For Pavel, these actions manifest differently. We learn early that his wife is pregnant and, for whatever reason, doesn’t know that his mother has died. Instead, he tells her lie after lie so that he doesn’t have to face the reality that his mother is gone. It’s a stunning contrast to the Pavel we see interacting with his father: angry, confrontational, and constantly demanding that Vasil faces up to reality.
It takes a great actor to take these different attitudes and construct a coherent, consistent character. But, it’s a challenge that Barnev is absolutely up for. So too is Ivan Savov – he’s forced to balance his livid moments with scenes of mania, where he engages in immoral and irrational behavior in pursuit of meaning. Not only does he accomplish this, but he does so while showing off an impeccable comic energy, one he balances with a need to preserve and further the essential dignity of this character.
The actors, and indeed the film overall, treats these characters with the complexity and nuance that they deserve. Understanding how difficult the situation they are going through is and why their particular actions are unwise and destructive. All throughout, the mother, a heavily developed character, is never seen. Her absence pierces the movie like a dagger. In a Q&A after the film’s screening at the London Film Festival, director Petar Valchanov explained that in an earlier cut, they planned a scene flashing back to a time in which Valentina was alive and living alongside these two men. I’m thankful they cut it.
Death should be felt. Because we never see much of the mother – of at least a little more than the occasional picture frame or snippets of her voice – her absence carries considerably more weight. As we learn more and more about her life and her relationship with Vasil, we feel that absence more and more. It’s a heavy weight on the film, and we an audience feel the sadness of not getting to meet this woman, that we never get to see the effect she had on the people in her life, even if we feel as though we know. In many films, never seeing a character like this may be a serious shortcoming, here it is a triumph. Everywhere we look, we see only her absence.
That’s part of what makes The Father such a brilliant exercise – it understands the weight of death and thrives in using it to weigh down the audience. This may not be a masterpiece, but I sincerely hope that it finds an international audience. It certainly deserves one.
Despite a few issues, The Father is a profound examination of grief that approaches its characters with grace and nuance.