Kamen Kalev's fourth feature film, inspired by his grandfather's life trajectory, is an attempt to portray a life lived, according to the director himself, "not with the mind, but with the heart"; a life of a man connected to the land and nature; undemanding and unexpecting more than what fate has in store for him. The portrait is designed as a triptych: childhood, early youth before the plunge into adult life and old age, almost infirm, just on the eve of death. All stages are more intuitively experienced than consciously realised. Rather than summarising key moments, and constructing a complete dramaturgical narrative, Kalev looks closely and in detail at specific fragments of these stages in which the protagonist acts passively and floats through existence; an approach that turns February into a lengthy contemplative essay.
Eight-year-old Peter spends summer days with his grandfather in the mountains. They herd sheep, take naps in the shade, and eat modest meals in their humble cottage. They exchange scant phrases indicating that the boy is bored and waiting to go down to the village to his mother and father. Secretly, he walks from his grandfather’s to an abandoned and half-destroyed hut in the woods, where he searches for something, but does not find it, and perhaps sees ghosts. It is never clear what it is. Next we jump to Peter's early adulthood - a wedding, shy smiles and a first wedding night, then immediately barracks, somewhere by the sea. A bedmate from the soldier's dormitory reads him poetry (Boris Hristov's Dandelion Bone - a thick underlining of how deeply fused the hero is with nature), a scowling colonel (the comically serious Milko Lazarov) lectures him on life, while Peter still prefers the silent company of the sea and rocks to that of people. And being a shepherd instead of pursuing a career in the army. In the next stage, when he is already an old man, we find him following his flock through a windy field with bare winter trees and gloomy grey skies, and then having dinner and doing chores around his kitchenette, while the director's even, slightly apathetic voiceover utters thoughts, borrowed from Camus, about the harshness and straightforwardness of our ancestors' humble and emotionless existence. The only distinctly conveyed urge to seek human contact is a telephone conversation with his sister, in which they discuss the need to spend their old age together.
The above paragraph almost entirely sums up the action part of the plot. The rest is staring at landscapes and long, interminable takes that are capable of putting even hardened festival adventurers to sleep. Capturing and reshaping time is an essential function of cinema, and in that sense February is undeniably "cinematic." Captured timelessness is its greatest virtue, and the idea of re-creating a life journey through three verbatim episodes, rather than retelling it, along with the exoticism of the Strandzha-Sakar landscape, must have convinced festival selectors of the 'avant-garde' nature of the form to include it in their programmes (it was selected at Cannes, Thessaloniki, Stockholm, Jerusalem, etc.). Beneath this conceptual balancing act, however, the content is obscure, perhaps because Kalev's desire to unravel his grandfather's world, "to break through the mystery of how a man can spend the whole day alone without talking to anyone," to penetrate his dreams and answer his questions about them, is not fulfilled. It remains in the realm of experiments. The quest is conceived but floats on the surface, does not dig deep. The aesthetic boldness of the film does not make up for its nebulous content. The concept remains at the level of thesis without reaching insights. Perhaps it is because Kalev tries to understand his grandfather in the opposite way of his nature - with the mind rather than the heart, putting him in the position of an "object of study". He observes him coolly and rationally, albeit closely. I don't know if the director has learned more about his grandfather through his cinematic experiment, but I suspect that his grandfather, and in general the people connected to the land and nature that February purports to portray, would not recognize themselves in this passive, yearningless schematic Peter who drifts through life like a straw blown by the wind. I even found it insulting to the character that throughout the two-hour running time there is not even an imaginative suggestion of what rocks his inner world. This suggests a fundamental alienation between the author and his object of interest; an insurmountable disconnect that makes for excruciating watching.
In Bulgaria, Kamen Kalev is considered a successful filmmaker mostly because of his breakthrough at Cannes after a long Bulgarian absence there - first with the short films Get the Rabbit Back (2005) and Rabbit Troubles (2007, both co-directed with Dimitar Mitovski and selected for Critics' Week), and later with his feature debut Eastern Plays (2009, presented at the Director's Forthnight). It is evident that from the very beginning of his career, the ambitious graduate of La Fémis film school in Paris has pursued success in the field of auteur cinema. French contacts probably play a key role, but even more decisive are his obvious considerations with the festival political conjuncture: the artificially sewn minority storyline in Eastern Plays and the "hot" topic of women trafficking in Face Down (2015), for example. Also with the marketing rules of the industry - the invitation of the model Leticia Casta in The Island (2011), which of course does not save the film from dramatic failure. Authorship in cinema is by definition characterized by a distinctive personal signature and interpretations on themes close to the subjective worldview of the director. However, there is no continuity or interconnectedness in Kamen Kalev's filmography - neither thematic nor aesthetic, except perhaps in his work with non-professional actors (Eastern Plays, Face Down, February). While Eastern Plays is a mix between documentary-authentic personal confession (the artist Hristo Hristov, who literally "embeded his soul" in the film) and social realism, The Island is an eccentric romantic drama with an unclear direction. While Face Down is a crime thriller, again with elements of social realism, February is a pantheistic elegy mourning a dying world. There is no thematic link between all of them. Which suggests that Kamen Kalev's filmography may consist of attempts to find successful models and that the desire for triumph is stronger than that for self-expression through cinema. In the case of February, the key to the heart of international criticism has been found: Cineuropa published a positive review, the Spanish film magazine Caimán Cuadernos de Cine (considered the local Cahiers du cinema) noted it with a favourable analysis of its innovative form, and Variety covered it in the framework of the Thessaloniki Film Festival with a reportage interview that played a very good PR role. Nevertheless, I suspect that the gap between the final product of the successful formula and its eventual recipients, in the face of mere mortal audiences, will remain wide open. For the lack of genuine excitement that February has to share.
This publication is supported by Bulgarian National Culture Fund