Tragedy is punctured by comedy from the start of The Father. At a funeral in rural Bulgaria, mourners prepare to say goodbye to Valentina as the priest delivers an elegy over her grave. Suddenly, a cellphone starts ringing with the sound of a beeping frog — it belongs to Valentina’s son, Pavel (Ivan Barnev). As the open coffin is lowered into the ground, Pavel’s elderly father, Vassil (Ivan Savov), demands that his son take a picture of the corpse with his camera. Initially, the son refuses, causing a mild scene. This sets the tone for a film that juxtaposes trivial obsessions with macabre matters, set amid a strained father-son relationship. The effect is gently comic, though it strays into poignant territory in the film’s affecting conclusion.
Filmmakers Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov (The Lesson, Glory) formed Abraxas Film to produce work that’s “equal parts amusing, upsetting and touching.” The Father, Bulgaria’s entry to the International Feature Oscar race and the 2019 Karlovy Vary Grand Prize winner, certainly follows that brief. Pavel is an unassuming protagonist who invites a combination of irritation, sympathy and mistrust. He’s at the mercy of his father’s eccentric whims, yet he is persistently lying to his wife on the phone, having told her he’s working on a commercial shoot rather than attending his mother’s funeral. At least aware that her husband is near the countryside, Pavel’s wife is fixated on him finding her a jar of homemade quince jam. Meanwhile, his father is determined to visit a local medium in order to contact Valentina, convinced that she has a message for him from beyond the grave. At first, both missions are presented as obscure and unnecessary, but our sympathy is invited to shift as further details about character and circumstance are revealed.
The most pronounced comedy takes place at a police station, where two visibly bored cops sigh as Pavel tries to make a report. When the officers step outside for a smoke, Pavel makes a clumsy attempt to steal their quince jam, and the tone moves from bleak, Kafka-esque absurdity to laugh-out-loud farce. It’s also at this point that Pavel’s grief is signaled more strongly: it becomes clear that he’s unraveling almost as much as his father, whose attempts to contact his dead wife send the pair on an eventful road trip around the locale.
While their presence is felt, women remain in the background of this story. One of the key female characters is only heard on the phone and the other is deceased — although Valentina is also seen very briefly as a younger woman, played by Maria Bakalova, the breakout star of Borat Subsequent Moviefilm. All women are concerned with domestic or superstitious matters — though given that Vassil shares the latter interest, that may be more of a reflection on regional culture than gender. Either way, the film’s focus on father and son makes this a very male affair: it’s the story of two stressed, confused men who have yet to address the problems in their own relationship. We leave them as they are only really beginning this process, so The Father isn’t a fully emotionally satisfying watch. But it is touching one, with plenty of enjoyable offbeat humor along the way.