Glory (2016) DVD Review: Bulgarian Tragicomedy Depressed Me

A railway lineman ruins his life by doing the right thing in this semi-comic, biting and ultimately depressing film.
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One of the reviews quoted on the box for Glory describes it as "Frank Capra Meets the Dardenne Brothers". I do not know anything about the Dardenne Brothers, but from the evidence of this film, I can only assume they make puppy snuff films, because the tone, theme and conclusion of Glory is about as far from a Frank Capra movie as I can conceive. Capra's central theme was about the dignity of humanity when pressed against the impersonal forces of society; Glory is about a man who has all of his dignity stripped from him until he is crushed by people who do not care.

A Bulgarian film, Glory has won several awards on the continent and in the U.S. And it is by no means poorly made or conceived. It tells a story that does, indeed, sound at first blush like something that could have come from the endlessly productive movie factories of early Hollywood: a railroad lineman, Tzanko (Stefan Denolyubov), mostly destitute and friendless and dirty, finds a sack filled with cash on his part of the rail line. Does he sock it away and hope nobody finds out what he did?

No. He painstakingly gets in contact with his superiors, directs them to the cash, and waits for them to tell him what to do. Tzanko knows the right thing to do, even if it doesn't benefit him personally. For this, he gets the eyes of the government on him, which, like the eye of Sauron, can see you in any hiding place.

The orc that gets directly involved in Taznko's life is Julia Staykova (Margita Gosheva), the head of PR for the transportation department whose job it is to make her fellow Bulgarians feel good about some dumb hick being a hero and turning in money, and to forget that this was an enormous blunder on some government official's behalf. Tzanko is invited to a dog and pony show with the minister of transportation, where the officials assume he's mentally deficient because he has a severe stutter that makes communication nearly impossible. The government is going to give him a watch for his trouble. Tzanko's only prized possession on earth is his own watch, which was a gift from his father. Julia unceremoniously pulls it off his wrist so the minister can put on its own cheap digital replacement, and later doesn't have it when Tzanko comes for it.

Julia is a woman who is constantly harried. She's just hit 40, and spends all the time she's not handling crises for the ministry at a fertility clinic, trying to make up for the lost time she spent building her career. She and her husband seem genial enough, though she seems to deeply resent the fact that she's the one who has to take the shots to help them get pregnant. They fight and make up in their stark, rather sterile apartment while Julia finds excuses for blowing off Tzanko, who is incessantly calling her department to find his watch.

These are simple components from which all kinds of stories could be built. Tzanko is an apparent naïf who lives only for his work and the rabbits he keeps in a pen. He has a long scraggly beard he keeps because "he took a vow". His past is a mystery and, at the risk of being spoilery, remains completely ambiguous throughout the film. He has lived, if not happily, then without despair on the far periphery of society's attention. Only by doing something out of character with modern life (that is, an act of decency) does he come under scrutiny. Eventually he ends up, thanks to an unscrupulous journalist, on television denouncing the ministry for various corruptions - though the only thing he cares about is his watch. Julia retaliates in a rather unconvincing twist by employing dirty cops, and bad things escalate from there.

Tzanko, as a character, has a stoic dignity that is repeatedly threatened but does not change, so it is Julia's character who has to change for there to be any story arc. The problem with this is that by the time she has some crisis of conscience, my interest in redemption for the character was completely gone. I was hoping someone would run her over with a train.

None of my qualms with the story extend to the technical or dramatic qualities of the story. It's obviously a low budget affair, but the camerawork is often handheld and kinetic without ever becoming sea-sick. Several scenes in Glory are funny, and my interest didn't flag throughout. I just do not know what I was supposed to get out of this story, beyond a feeling of annoyance and irritation. It's inspired by a real news story (though without any pretense of being an accurate accounting) and contains some obvious truth about the bureaucratization of modern life, but coming out of the film I didn't feel angry at injustice or even a sense of sadness at the state to which people's ambitions drive out their humanity (which I took to be the central theme). I was just irritated and depressed.

Glory has been released on DVD by Film Movement. Besides a paragraph-long statement from the directors on the inside of the jacket, the only bonus material on the disc is the 2015 Oscar-winning Danish short film "Helium", which is a lovely story about a hospital orderly befriending a terminally ill child in his last days of life.

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