Great title, even better film

Stephan Komandarev’s new movie demonstrates that ‘the world is big, and salvation lurks around’ ...this grandfather.

The World Is Big and Salvation Lurks  (photo credit: Courtesy)
The World Is Big and Salvation Lurks
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Written by Komandarev and Yurii Dachev. Hebrew title: Ha Olam Gadol ve Yeshua M’Ever La Pina.105 minutes. In Bulgarian, German, English and Slovenian. Check theaters for subtitle information.
Remember how there was an era in French cinema when every movie from France seemed to star Gerard Depardieu? That got a bit tiresome, but right now we are in a golden age of Eastern European cinema in which nearly every movie – from every country – stars Miki Manojlovic, and that’s very good news. While it’s unlikely that you recognize this Serbian actor’s name, if you’ve seen Emir Kusturica’s Black Cat White Cat or Underground, the gritty Serbian crime drama The Trap or the even the British film Irina Palm, about a respectable matron who becomes a London sex worker, then you’ve seen Manojlovic. He usually plays bad guys, or at least shady characters. But in his latest film, the Bulgarian/Slovenian/ German/Hungarian co-production, The World Is Big and Salvation Lurks around the Corner,” he gets a chance to give a more rounded performance as a beloved grandfather who nurses his grandson through a traumatic experience.
This film – which was on the short list for last year’s Oscars (but in the end didn’t receive a nomination) – focuses on a new era in European life, the post-Soviet era. Sashko (Carlo Ljubek) is born in Communist Bulgaria into a close-knit, loving family. His grandmother manages to acquire enough sugar, a rare commodity in those days, to celebrate her grandson’s birth with a tableful of pastries. Bai Dan (Manojlovic), a serious backgammon player whose life revolves around the game, celebrates by winning a match. As Sashko grows up, Bai Dan starts teaching him the game, which the old man says must never be played for money, and the boy shows great promise. Then Sashko’s father is accused of a minor infraction, and the Communist authorities threaten to fire him from his job unless he becomes a spy for them.
Specifically, they tell him they want him to spy on Bai Dan, who is accused of illegally making wooden backgammon sets (it’s so easy to forget the debilitating Communist rules that marred millions of lives a generation ago). So Sashko and his parents flee to the West but get stopped just outside Germany, where they are detained in an Italian-run camp. They think that soon they will be allowed to emigrate, but they spend years in the camp, living on limp spaghetti and hope.
Fast forward to 20 years later: Sashko is with his parents in Germany when their car crashes. His parents are killed, and he suffers a severe head injury. He is so disoriented that he doesn’t even recognize his grandfather, who comes to visit him in the hospital.
The grandfather stops by his grandson’s apartment and sees that it is filled with fast-food wrappers and the instruction manuals Sashko translated to make a living.
Deciding his grandson has no real life to return to – the hunky young man doesn’t seem to have any friends or girlfriends searching for him – Bai Dan takes the slowly recovering grandson on a road trip back to Bulgaria by bike.
This trip is at the heart of this unapologetically sentimental movie.
You know that the two are going to have adventures and bond, but watching them do this is enjoyable.
The gorgeous scenery along the way doesn’t hurt, either. Normally, I loathe films with a sentimental underpinning because so often it’s cynical and false. But here, with an actor like Manojlovic, one of those performers you can’t look away from even when he’s doing nothing in particular, the film is filled with exhilarating moments. Yes, it’s predictable at times, but director Stephan Komandarev manages to keep things moving and relies on the charm of his actors. It’s based on a novel by Ilija Trojanow, and some plot turns that are brought up and then dropped very quickly (Sasha’s parents’ marital discord and reconciliation) were probably explained more thoroughly in the book.
While the Communist era is certainly not romanticized, the film shows how uprooting a family can cause problems and loneliness. The journey out of Eastern Europe into the West and then back into a messy but more hopeful homeland is one that few movies have chronicled. This film, with its wonderful title, tackles the subject with style and affection.