By Jordan Cronk

A modest work of considerable grace and insight, Ilian Metev’s 3/4 quietly stands as one of the most accomplished narrative debuts of the year. Genuinely compassionate, the 36-year-old Bulgarian’s directorial voice echoes forth confidently from the opening frames of this most understated of family dramas. Following the Semaine de la Critique fêted documentary Sofia’s Last Ambulance (2012), Metev’s first narrative feature––winner of the Filmmakers of the Present prize at this summer’s Locarno Festival––begins with a deceptively intricate passage that simultaneously sets forth the film’s distinct formal strategy and its suggestive way with narrative. Through a series of slowly retreating, slightly offset, and downwardly tilted tracking shots, a peculiar schoolyard scenario swiftly takes shape: legs and feet jut out from the corner of each frame; a water bottle is kicked back and forth across an asphalt playground; and on the soundtrack, a group of young boys is heard calling out instructions from offscreen, where they’ll remain, heard but unseen, until the camera stops mid-stride and one of the boys sprawls out diagonally on the blacktop, bisecting the composition. I’d call it Bressonian, though the effect is less austere than inviting, seemingly intuited rather than inherited.

This brief opening establishes a few key strategies that Metev will continually return to throughout the film––namely, the discreet dispersal of information (both verbal and visual), the considered arrangement of bodies and movement within his 3:2 frame, and the use of backwards tracking shots to both cover various conversations and bridge the film’s outdoor locations with their interior counterparts. Set in the suburbs of Sofia, 3/4 (pronounced “Three Quarters”) follows an astrophysicist, Todor (Todor Velchev), and his two children, the adolescent Niki (Nikolay Mashalov) and his teenage sister Mila (Mila Mikhova), as they spend one last summer together before Mila departs for an important piano audition in Germany. Their absent mother is mentioned only briefly, in one fleeting conversation (“Have you seen mom crying? Does it make you sad to see her like that?”), her unexplained estrangement providing the film a crucial structuring absence and the characters a sense of accumulated personal history. Evidence of her absence and the pre-emptive effect of Mila’s departure is felt most acutely in Niki’s adolescent antics, harmless if exasperating displays of hyperactive angst (that’s him in the opening sequence, sprawled out on the asphalt, encouraging his friends to use his body as a skateboarding obstacle) that Todor has trouble controlling while he’s working long nights away from home. Niki thus spends most of his time annoying his sister, and Mashalov, in his acting debut, exudes a natural charisma and poise that impressively tempers some of Niki’s more untoward displays of juvenile spirit. (“I’m great. Many people have told me so,” he declares in one of his most ingratiating speeches.)

Mila and Todor maintain a mostly healthy and loving relationship, though each harbours anxieties the other can’t quite quell. Rather than take advantage of his daughters’ last few months at home, Todor, a relatively youthful father, spends many of his evenings offering advice to a junior coworker (Alexander Kurtenkov) and confiding in others about the emotional solitude of being a single parent. Mila, meanwhile, continually toils in frustration at the piano as her instructor (Simona Genkova) attempts to keep her focused, a self-evident wealth of talent belying a lack of confidence in her own abilities. Despite Todor’s best intentions, his efforts to discipline or to offer encouragement to his children often come across as timid or misguided. In perhaps his most telling moment of parental indecision, Todor opts to chastise an unruly Niki, whose hectoring appraisal of his sister’s uncertain future has sent her running from the dinner table, rather than comfort a visibly rattled Mila, whose persistent apprehension threatens to stifle her creative passion. (In this sense, the film’s musically inflected title seems to nod as much to three-quarter time as it does a fractured family unit.)

There’s a remarkable intimacy to this and other domestic scenes, an effortless sense of family dynamics that feels organic and speaks fully to Metev and co-writer Betina Ip’s command of character and commitment to the quotidian moments that shape everyday life. There are no antagonists in 3/4, let alone villains––no dark or sadistic undercurrents meant to reflect contemporary Europe’s fraught sociopolitical temperament. By almost every conceivable tonal and stylistic metric, the film feels utterly removed from whatever continues to pass for serious international art cinema. (In the context of recent Bulgarian cinema, represented most prominently by Ralitza Petrova’s oppressively grim, multiple-award-winning Godless [2016], Metev’s deft touch and empathetic ethos stand even further afield.)

Buttressing this delicate sensibility, Metev and cinematographer Julian Atanassov continually find inventive ways to frame their actors and stage the drama. Action often begins offscreen, with characters and objects entering the frame at unexpected intervals. Moving with an understated finesse, the camera regularly focuses on the actors’ bodies and their physical features, such as when Mikhova is first introduced in a composition that lingers lovingly over her shoulder as she plays the piano, before shifting 180 degrees to a slightly elevated perspective, bestowing a vaguely angelic air on her performance. With its shrewdly integrated construction and near-weightless rhythmic drive, the film most closely recalls the work of Argentina’s Matías Piñeiro. (One wonders if Piñeiro, who sat on the jury that awarded 3/4 in Locarno, recognized a bit of himself in the film’s casually unfolding dramaturgy.)

But the film’s signature image––the reverse tracking shot––is also its most unique and subtly imaginative flourish. In a sly rebuke of arthouse cinema’s tired use of the following shot––a shorthand device meant to force an unwavering subjectivity that’s been rendered impotent by everyone from Gaspar Noé to Joachim Trier to Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu––Metev opts instead to track his actors backwards as they walk in stride with the camera. These lengthy outdoor sequences, assembled by Metev––working again as his own editor––in an otherwise fairly recognizable shot-reverse-shot style in which the camera nonetheless never stops pulling back as the actors (usually Mikhova and Mashalov) walk and talk in naturalistic rapport, ultimately reinforce the film’s welcoming essence: these aren’t characters you want to follow so much as observe and consider in harmony with their thoughts and surroundings.

Metev wisely saves the most tender of these exchanges for his finale, one of recent cinema’s most poignant denouements. In what will likely be the family’s last outing before Mila ships off to Germany, the trio set out on an afternoon hike. Again tracking the characters from the front, Metev allows silences, subtle expressions, and a few touching words (“Save your strength. There’s a long ascent ahead”) to articulate more than any prior argument or future display of emotion ever could. For 80 generous minutes we’ve watched as this family has grown and confronted private hardships. In these closing moments––perhaps the only time in the film when the viewer wishes he or she could see what lies ahead––they appear, if only temporarily, to have found a certain peace. What this beautifully restrained, deeply resonant film suggests is that sometimes that’s enough to keep moving forward.

Follow

Friend me on FacebookFollow me on TwitterRSS Feed

From the Magazine

  • Cinema Scope Issue 86 Table of Contents

    The Cinema Scope Top Ten of 2020 Interviews The Girl and the Spider *En plein air: Denis Côté on Hygiène sociale by Jordan Cronk *The More →

  • The Cinema Scope Top Ten of 2020

    1. Days (Tsai Ming-liang) 2. The Works and Days (of Tayoko Shiojiri in the Shiotani Basin) (C.W. Winter and Anders Edström) 3. The Year of More →

  • The Primacy of Perception: Ramon & Silvan Zürcher on The Girl and the Spider

    Near the midpoint of The Girl and the Spider—Ramon and Silvan Zürcher’s overdue, much anticipated follow-up to their masterful debut feature, The Strange Little Cat (2013)—a character launches into another of the Zürcher brothers’ distinctive anecdotal monologues. Mara (Henriette Confurius), who is as close as this film gets to a protagonist, describes for her neighbour, Kerstin (Dagna Litzenberger-Vinet), an incident that occurred the previous day between herself and her newly ex-roommate (and perhaps ex-girlfriend) Lisa (Liliane Amuat). “I was in my room while Lisa was on the toilet,” she recounts. “She asked me to bring her a roll of toilet paper. Instead of giving it to her, I walked past the door from left to right, from Lisa’s point of view.” The image cuts to the scene while she recalls it, privileging us with a more objective account of the incident: a fixed shot showing Mara stand up from her desk, grab a package of toilet paper, and march past the door, her arms outstretched like a zombie. More →

  • Exploded View: Steina & Woody Vasulka

    Icelandic filmmaker Hrafnhildur Gunnarsdóttir’s extraordinarily warming 2019 documentary The Vasulka Effect, about the protean Euro-hippies and rightfully dubbed “grandparents of video art,” Steina and Woody Vasulka, was exactly the movie I needed to see this winter. Awash in Nordic echoes even as it confronts the modern realities of art-gallery politics and the history of America’s visual-arts fringes, it’s a mythical origin story that’s actually true, all about ancient heroes and ravaging time. More →

  • Canadiana | Reading Aids: The Good Woman of Sichuan and Ste. Anne

    When navigating the as-yet-unknown films of a festival program, nationality still provides a persuasive point of reference for some, a feeling underlined by the proud declarations issued by national funding organizations, promotional bodies, or particularly partisan members of the press once titles have been announced. This year’s reduced Berlinale Forum lineup also invites tenuous lines of this kind to be drawn (two films from Argentina, two films from Canada!), although the three Franco-German co-productions shot elsewhere say far more about how films are made in 2021. More →