If you've ever wondered what a noir film set in communist Bulgaria might look like, then Zift is the movie for you. It's a stylish project, built on the tropes and conventions of traditional noir and hardboiled detective films, but is also much more.
The story revolves around Moth (Zahary Baharov), a longtime prison inmate who was jailed in the forties just prior to the communist takeover, and is being released many years later, ostensibly for helping to spread communist ideals throughout the prison. He was imprisoned for a murder, of which he is innocent, though he was involved in the attempted diamond heist during which the murder was committed. He and his beautiful wife Ada (Tanya Ilieva) and their criminal accomplice Slug (Vladimir Penev) had schemed to steal the diamond from a wealthy jeweler, for whom Ada had been working as a maid.
Of course, things go wrong. The old man is still at home when he should be out, he fires on the robbers, and is himself killed by Slug. Moth is the only one captured, and he keeps mum about the others to protect his wife and as yet unborn child. The action of the film begins just as he is being released. Slug, now a powerful party member, has him picked up and tortured, to force him to reveal the location of the diamond, which was never found.
The story is not told linearly, with numerous flashbacks, and flashbacks within flashbacks, telling the tale of Moth's youth, his passionate love affair with Ada, and his time in prison. He narrates a great part of the film, in classic noir style, and this fits nicely with the very stylized presentation. Though there is a fair amount of action and classic turns such as chases through decrepit alleyways, seductive lounge songs and brutal fights, Zift still manages to be a fairly philosophical and contemplative film.
A couple of thematic concepts permeate the film. One is that women, and falling in love with them, are without exception deadly but unavoidable. The other is zift itself. Zift is bitumen, or blacktop, which was apparently used as a chewing gum in Bulgaria. It is also slang for human feces. Moth is constantly chewing on his ball of zift, and meditating on the piles of it (the other kind) that humans must wade through in the course of their lives. Over and over again, the narrative stops for a moment while another character relates their own tale of ironic misery or misfortune, their own struggles through the zift.
Technically, the film is very accomplished. The performances are all superb, particularly Baharov as the beleaguered ex-con, who knows that the deck is stacked against him and that justice may be impossible, but keeps on his path regardless. Tanya Ilieva is also nuanced and sexy as the duplicitous femme fatale, and brings considerable subtlety to her character. The film is shot in black and white and looks great. (One is tempted to refer to it as "glorious black and white", but one resists the temptation.) Javor Gardev's direction is confident, and he mixes noir staples with ironic humor and social comment in just the right amounts. Although the copious nudity and violence make it inappropriate for kids, for almost anyone else Zift is a good bet.