Stamenov is like a character in a Samizdat novel come to life, but not
necessarily in a good way. The former
informer is a figure of existential absurdity rather than defiance. He is still dangerous though, but to whom is
the question in Emil Christov’s The Color
of the Chameleon (trailer
screens during the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival.
her deathbed, Stamenov’s mother confesses she really is his mother, whereas he
had always been told she was his aunt and adoptive-mother. This does little to develop his sense of
belonging. Stamenov is ingratiating by
nature, but also reflexively deceptive—swell traits to the secret policeman who
recruits the student as an informer and agent-provocateur. Stamenov’s first assignment has him
infiltrating a literary club obsessed with the underground novel Zincograph. Like the fictional Samizdat protagonist,
Stamenov also takes work in a state zinc etching plant, which happens to be a
fine place to pick up some chemical know-how.
commits many questionable acts, beginning by signing up as an informer in early
1989, when the writing was already on the soon to be toppled wall. He has two eggs containing secret
instructions should Communism fall in either Bulgaria or the Soviet Union. This is not a good sign. Yet, the task just seems to appeal to
Stamenov for non-ideological reasons.
When terminated by the official intelligence service, he starts recruiting
his own informers for a phony agency just like the protagonist of Zincograph.
from screenwriter Vladislav Todorov’s real life novel titled Zincograph, Stamenov’s anti-heroics
could easily lend themselves to an outrageously over-the-top big screen
treatment, but Christov’s approach is rather severe and chilly. Frankly, it takes a while for the film to
come together, as Stamenov largely creeps about unappealingly. However, the third act is an intrigue-fueled
dozy, making some razor-sharp points about the state of post-Communist Bulgaria
in between the twists and turns.
Chameleon is a film for
everyone who enjoys movie references (remember the Bulgarian couple in Casablanca?), thinly veiled critiques of
politicians you will never recognize, and liberal helpings of paranoid
gamesmanship. There is also an unhealthy
preoccupation (as if there were any other kind) with the evil effects of “onanism.” Such is Communism’s continuing legacy for
a lot like a Bulgarian Jude Law, pop star Ruscen Vidinliev’s Stamenov is one cold
fish, but he is convincingly calculating and sociopathic. He keeps the film moving along well enough,
while the supporting cast provides plenty of color. Rousy Chanev brings the right sort of Machiavellian
charisma to bear as Stamenov’s former handler, while Deyan Donkov is notably
intense and just plain interesting looking as the Mr. Clean hardball fixer
pursuing the freelance saboteur.
The politics of Chameleon are rather ambiguous, particularly for viewers not deeply
steeped in the Bulgarian scene. Yet, the
lingering toxicity of the old regime is unmistakable. Clearly, it spawned a culture of lies and
deception that Todorov and Christov argue cannot be easily shrugged off. A slow starter very much worth sticking with,
The Color of the Chameleon is
recommended for literate, “free-thinking” viewers when it screens again this coming
Sunday morning (9/16) as part of this year’s TIFF.
Labels: Bulgarian Cinema, Communism, TIFF '12