A Holocaust drama that speaks Ladino

‘Bulgarian Rhapsody’ is charming but tinged with dread.

'Bulgarian Rhapsody’ film (photo credit: PR)
'Bulgarian Rhapsody’ film
(photo credit: PR)
The film Bulgarian Rhapsody is a sweet-natured coming-of-age drama set during the Holocaust, and it’s a well-made, Ladino-accented variation on a story we’ve seen many times. Even though we all know how it ends, it’s interesting to see how the story plays out in Bulgaria, where Jews were persecuted but mostly allowed to live.
The movie focuses on Moni (Kristiyan Makarov), a shy, artistically inclined Jewish teenager in Sofia who is fascinated by girls.
It’s his more mature and confident Christian best friend, Giogio (Stefan Popov), who tries to give him lessons on how act with females, but Moni is a slow learner.
Moni and Giogio both take the war in stride. The power outages and bombs don’t scare them, and they treat the yellow star Moni must wear as a nuisance. Giogio’s father, the driver for the head of the government department responsible for keeping tabs on Bulgarian Jews, discourages their friendship, but Giogio is utterly loyal to Moni – the anti-Semitic propaganda is like a dull lesson at school that he ignores.
For Moni, though, the war brings a great deal of turmoil at home. His widowed father, Moiz, played by Israeli actor Moni Moshonov, is caught between his diva-like mother, Fortune (Tatyana Lolova) and Moni’s sister, who desperately wants to marry her boyfriend.
Dismayed by all the Allied bombings, Moiz sends his mother and children to visit their cousins in Kavala, a picture-perfect seaside town across the border in Greece.
There, Moni falls head over heels in love with Shelli (Anjela Nedyalkova), his beautiful, freespirited cousin.
After returning to Sofia, Moni works in a tavern, since Jews are forbidden to go to school, and pretends to Giogio that he has lost his virginity to Shelli. When Shelli’s family comes to visit Sofia, Giogio is instantly smitten with her, and Moni finds himself a third wheel.
The adolescent love triangle is well done, but romances set during the Holocaust generally don’t end well, and the plot of Bulgarian Rhapsody is no exception. The late New Yorker magazine movie critic Pauline Kael said in an interview, “One of the things that disturbs me about a movie like Boys Don’t Cry is that it works on dread, not suspense... I don’t like movies that work on dread, and yet they’re often taken very seriously because of that dread factor. You sit there knowing that this poor guy is going to be beaten to a pulp, and it’s an awful feeling.”
This dread factor she complains of in a different context is virtually always an integral part of Holocaust dramas. Without the looming tragedy, Bulgarian Rhapsody would be just a charming period teen romance.
Adding the dread of the inevitable tragedy to the story gives the movie an ending; but other than hearing dialogue in Ladino, there is very little we haven’t seen before.
One effective scene shows the government troops confiscating Jews’ radios, and it’s a rare and refreshing moment when we see the Jews destroy their radios rather than give them up.
The actors are all excellent, especially the three teen stars. It’s utterly believable that these friends would become rivals over Shelli.
Tatyana Lolova as the histrionic matriarch steals every scene she appears in.
This movie was Bulgaria’s official selection for consideration for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, and there was some controversy over whether the selection process was fair and whether Bulgarian Rhapsody was really the best choice. It didn’t make the short list – meaning it won’t get a nod – but it’s just the kind of entertainingly made movie with serious overtones that tends to do well at the Oscars.
There have been several excellent Bulgarian movies in recent years that have been distributed internationally, among them The World Is and Salvation Lurks around the Corner, and we can expect to see more Bulgarian films on local screens in the future.