A historic misadventure happened to the film Ashes over Sun. It was released at a time when its main theme - the negative attitude of the media and society towards doctors - was left behind. The pandemic has turned over a new page and the public image of doctors is now different, especially against the backdrop of those who risked and lost their lives, reminding everyone of the high ethics of the medical profession. Society has changed its attitude and today we tend to blame the shortcomings of the system for making it difficult to perform an operation on a sick person rather than a particular doctor who may have made a mistake while operating. We are unlikely to regain the ease with which we used to accuse doctors of all sorts of things.
So, Ashes Over Sun was outdated by the time it premiered, and for that, at least, it bears no blame. The film's ambition is to deal with Truth, to debate philosophical dilemmas, to draw grand generalizations through exploration of the painful theme of undeserved malice towards the medical profession.
Julian Vergov plays a celebrated doctor accused of a medical error that led to death. Sylvia Petkova is an assertive reporter determined to "smash the little doctor" who kills people lightly. Over the course of the narrative, she experiences a mental twist and catharsis, refuses to sacrifice her personal professional ethics, and quits the newsroom, which wants her to serve? “the little doctor's" head on a platter. The poor doctor, on the other hand, is living the life of a hermit, has no private life, having sacrificed it for his profession. Eventually, he ends up sick and admitted to hospital. After showing us in detail the clinic that paid for advertising time in the film, the filmmakers think it's all getting a bit too heavy, so they include comedic interludes to liven up the action a bit, there's also a flirt with a pretty female doctor, and in the end we have to be shocked by the brutal denouement in which, unable to wait for the test results, the good doctor slits his wrists with a dull razor blade - a detail that is given pronounced attention. In the finale, as in an American film, everyone stands by the open grave; naturally, it rains; psychological parallelism rules - rain from the skies, tears from the soul. Everyone: the journalist, the doctor's friend, his ex-wife, the female doctor with whom he had a fleeting flirtation, and the head of the hospital are kind and dignified in their grief and their elegant black clothes. The curtain is rung down.
There's a slang term used by today's Bulgarian teens: cringey. It describes the painful feeling of the unprejudiced viewer who finds themselves faced with a particularly unsuccessful attempt to create an artistic product. Bulgarian cinema audiences are so familiar with cringiness that after any film that didn’t make them squirm painfully in their seats, they are quick to clarify “it’s Bulgarian, but nice”.
Usually in this type of narrative someone seems good and noble, but turns out to be bad and mean. Ashes over Sun takes the opposite approach - the suspect turns out to be not just innocent, but sublime, a saint, so to speak. The reporter, too, makes the journey from unscrupulous ambitious bitch to ethical person who refuses to compromise, realizing her responsibility to the truth as both a person and a journalist.
Such films rely heavily on dynamic and tight dialogue to drive both the action and the characters. Here, instead of conversation, we have declarations - "I'm going to crush this little doctor", "Don't crush him, he's my friend and he's a very decent man", "But please, colleague, life, though difficult, is worth living, we have to fight for it, we have to die for it" (well, okay, I'm exaggerating towards the end, but only a little). The lines are like outtakes from a conversation of strangers in a waiting room, exchanging hackneyed platitudes to pass the time.
Ashes Over Sun, a film for Bulgarian audiences, shows a non-Bulgarian reality in which every location has been modelled with a plasterboard sheen in the renovation splendour style resulting from public procurements. The hospitals are all new and shiny - such that a negligible portion of the audience has ever entered. All the characters inhabit pseudo-luxurious dwellings, as desolate and sterile as the soul of a corrupt doctor, none of which tell us anything about the characters except that the good doctor slept in IKEA sheets.
So it is a film about present-day people inhabiting the same urban and interior environment as us but the characters are moving in a polished, glossy version of reality. Could it possibly be some kind of poor-man's complex that shows through this effort of BG productions to be hip so as not to discredit themselves in the eyes of the viewer? (Ashes over Sun may gain unforeseen fame. The film resolves the famous philosophical question of whether the refrigerator light stays on after we close the door. There's a long shot of the good doctor staring at the sterilely stacked food boxes inside. The answer is: no.)
Perhaps you don't have to be a journalist to wonder why the reporter, given that she worked for a print or online publication, would carefully turn on her phone camera and lug tripods every time? In general, there is a heavy reliance on professional accessories to lend credibility to the characters. (Doctors are doctors because they are dressed in aprons and wear sabots and ankle socks. A psychiatrist is a psychiatrist because a portrait of Freud hangs in his office. The media are powerful because they have fancy newsrooms.)
These would all be negligible flaws and quibbles if the characters were developed, if they convinced us of their plausibility, if they exuded even a vague hint of life, but shackled to the poorly crafted script - they are like walking theses, antitheses and clichés.
We wouldn't be so picky either if we knew who this movie was about. Is it trying to get a "clutching the throat/the soul" type of reaction from the audience - maybe yes, maybe no. It is obviously afraid to tread on melodrama. Something falls short for the typical "based on an actual case". It is cautious not to overdo the philosophical dilemmas, the moralising and lecturing. Perhaps the main weakness comes from this ambiguity - what kind of film does Ashes Over Sun want to be? And who is it aimed at - those anonymously pouring bile and spit on doctors, or those with a higher ethical standard. (The pompous title is also quite superfluous: it's not clear who/what the sun is and who/what is throwing ashes on it. Besides, the Sun is the Sun, because it reduces to ashes.)
On top of the amorphous screenplay is the lack of rhythm and the sad, uniform montage. In its sorrowfully slow movement from beginning to end, the catharsis of the main character and the doctor's downfall are lost in a torrent of chatty dialogues with minor and episodic characters. The lazy camera, fixing faces in close-up, does not help much either. On the contrary, we begin to discern the discomfort we feel as spectators, even in the ill-timed tics of the actors realizing the awkwardness of the situation. It feels like we are witnessing an attempt to revive a patient who has passed away prior to the operation.
This publication is supported by Bulgarian National Culture Fund