What would you do if you stumbled across a million dollars in cash, lying on the ground somewhere rarely visited? Would you hand it in to the authorities? You might assume there’d be a benign result from such a moral act.
One railroad lineman did just that, and it turned him into the butt of a national joke.
“Glory,” by Bulgarian filmmakers Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov, is a deftly executed tragicomedy that puts a magnifying glass over the social consequences of personal actions. The film opens at the Film Forum in New York City on April 12.
Lineman Tsanko Petrov (Stefan Denolyubov) finds a bag spilled all over the railroad tracks filled with millions of dollars in cash. As he heard on the radio that morning, the finances of the Ministry of Transport are in disarray. Corruption is rampant, embezzlement is the norm, and Petrov hasn’t been paid his meager salary in two months. Our quiet and unassuming protagonist reports his findings to the ministry, prompting a massive farce of a public relations circus, with Petrov center stage as the model government employee.
Grozeva and Valchanov had read a similar story in Bulgarian newspapers. This lineman had received, as a token of gratitude, a watch from the government agency. The watch stopped working a few days later. In a follow-up interview with the lineman a few years later, the filmmakers found inspiration for their film.
“In quite a bitter tone, he explained that if he ever happened to find such a pile of cash on the rails again, he’d just walk on by and leave it to whomever it might concern,” the filmmakers wrote in an email. After his good deed, not only was he ridiculed by strangers, but his fellow townsfolk proclaimed him “a total jerk” for giving the money back.
Stories like these are a dime a dozen, the filmmakers said. Headlines in Bulgaria “are a never-ending source of film material,” they wrote. “It wouldn’t be much of an exaggeration if we said that every new day brings inspiration for a new film. In this sense, it’s sometimes really difficult to choose which story to tell first.”
Their previous film, the award-winning “The Lesson,” was also taken from the news—an article about a teacher robbing a bank. Difficulties piled up for this hard-working teacher from a small town in Bulgaria, until she finally robbed a bank in desperation.
Bulgaria, the poorest country in the European Union, has a long history of hardship: five centuries under the Ottoman Turks, an ally of Germany during both world wars, then ruled by communists from 1946 to 1990, with telling results. With little time to develop a national identity, and having a failed communist regime as its most recent political model, Bulgaria has a messy political climate. The country has held three parliamentary elections in four years as it stumbles along toward becoming a functioning democracy. As of last year, it was found to be the most corrupt country in the European Union, according to Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index.
The people seek stability, but those who have it easily fall prey to the amorality of a society where it’s expected that you will either take advantage or get taken advantage of.
“We wanted most of all to tell a story about the absurdity that we live in, but also to examine the fragility of good, to talk about how easily it can be beaten, broken, crushed, or otherwise banished,” the filmmakers wrote. Indeed, throughout the film, the characters with a moral backbone are the ones being taken for a spin by the larger apparatus of a society with suspicious ethics.
“A world where it’s more accepted to banish good instead of evil is much more disturbing, isn’t it?” the filmmakers wrote.
Our villain in the story is the tightly controlled, cleanly polished PR mastermind, Julia Staykova.
Actress Margita Gosheva, who portrays Staykova, says she meets that type of woman quite often.
“They pretend to control everything, but in fact are very chaotic,” she said. Their lives are superficial, and their excuse is the lack of time. Staykova clings to the image of control, but any slight bit of criticism sets her off in a frenzy.
Gosheva had the chance to observe the press office of the former president for five days, “to feel the atmosphere, the rhythm of the work, their body language, the vocabulary they use, the conversations during their lunch break, what the protocol of an event is.”
“I had a great, interesting time there, I must admit,” she said.
In the film, people are baffled when Petrov calls in the found money, but Staykova jumps on the story and sets a plan in motion to use this as a great opportunity to take the public’s focus off of the ministry’s failings. She puts him on national television, brings him in for an awards ceremony, and expertly minds the details so the image presented is tightly controlled, cleanly polished—and completely cringe-worthy from behind the scenes. In the midst of all this, Staykova carelessly misplaces Petrov’s old watch—a family heirloom with an engraving on it to him from his late father.
“It’s a story about power, time, and how one can easily lose the meaning, the real reason, for doing something,” Gosheva said. “[It’s] about the lack of responsibility in the choices one makes. Power easily turns into degenerative energy, and unfortunately we are still witnessing this every day.”
The film builds an environment where such actions are the norm, and makes the viewer want to nurture what shred of goodness exists, lest it get put through the grinder like the good railroad lineman.
Staykova does make an effort to be more than a caricature of a human being, but not very hard. She tries to have a family, but doesn’t understand the give-and-take of a relationship and continues to let her husband down. She tries to be responsible and locate the watch she lost, but gives up quickly and has another watch of the same model sent to Petrov instead. She tries to make peace with an upset Petrov, but loses her temper and escalates the animosity and the stakes to the point where both meet their downfall.
“I always search for the contradiction within the character. Her ‘Achilles heel,'” Gosheva said. “I believe [the contradiction] builds the logic of the character and sets the pattern for her confidence level.”
“Playing such a character allows breaking the limit of arrogance,” said Gosheva, who takes this workaholic character to her breaking point.
“I wish, at the end, the audience feels pity for her,” she said.