Written by Lorenzo, and also published on sabinap.com. Thanks Sabina!!
As someone who neither is Bulgarian nor speaks Bulgarian, I’m not Dqkon Levski‘s target audience. However, my wife and I attended the premiere at NDK on account of our friend Milena’s horse, a magnificent animal named Karina who was a credit to the film. With a beautiful, tawny coat and mighty, piston-like haunches, Karina brightened the film during the roughly 18 seconds she was onscreen, hurling the poor child-Levski into a pond. Unfortunately, having brought class to the proceedings, Karina promptly disappeared and the film took another 4 hours to reach its inevitable and merciful conclusion.
As I said, I’m not the target audience for this film. When you’ve been studying Bulgarian for 7 months as I have, one of the most frustrating experiences you encounter is not understanding something. Not understanding nearly a word of a 4-hour-plus film is enough to make an exacting person like me nearly suicidal. At 2 hours, I was so thoroughly discouraged that I was planning to drop Bulgarian and just learn German instead. The, the intertitles announced PART 2, and I was debating which key to best cut my throat with. Seriously, I understood as much Turkish as I did Bulgarian. My wife tells me they were speaking an archaic-sounding version of Bulgarian, which may be true or may be something to protect my feelings. However, judging by Levski’s 4.7 rating on IMDb, I’m guessing a lot of Bulgarians didn’t get much of it, either.
The film begins inside a church. Ottoman soldiers and their mustaches have their swords drawn, menacing Bulgarkas with death and implied defilement. So far, so legible. The imagery of a leering Turk raping an innocent Bulgarian maiden in Christ’s house is imagery even I can understand. Hopefully that communicates what kind of register Levski is working in, and what level of grace, artfulness, and subtlety the audience can expect.
We’re introduced to a baby named Ali Aslan. A reader may ask: why is the audience being introduced to important babies? Especially fictional ones? It’s a great question! As a fan of film specifically and being entertained in general, I’ll say here what I tell every new parent I meet: children are boring. They don’t do interesting things or have valuable things to contribute. No one needs to get in front of a camera before they’re at least 25.
However, we meet Ali and li’l Vasil Levski. I’ll admit that I was a little harsh on the film for the first half hour, since I had no idea that the apple-cheeked little scamp we saw onscreen was the future Apostle of Freedom. Maybe that was my fault: it definitely seemed like he introduced himself as “Boyan,” and his father’s grave revealed his family name as Kunchev. I thought to myself, who the hell is this “Boyan Kunchev” kid, and why have we still not met Vasil Levski 30 minutes into the film? And WHERE IS MILENA’S AMAZING HORSE??
And why the hell are we watching these kids, again? Well, remember Ali Aslan, the Turkish baby we met in the opening? Aslan is Turkish for lion, JUST LIKE Levski means “leonine”! See, I told you this movie was subtle. The film is taking allll thisss tiiiime setting Levski’s relationship with some fictional Turkish kid to setup his future conflict against the Yoke. Now, given that Levski’s adult life was made up of struggle against the Ottoman authorities, it may seem didactic and redundant to set up a personal conflict with the Ottomans, too. It’d appear unforgivably stupid, even contemptuous of the audience to waste this much time on a personal relationship that literalizes the overall struggle of Levski’s life. It’d be like Jaws having a subplot in which Brody risks getting cuckolded by Amity’s lecherous millionaire, Mr. Shark.
Well, naysayers, Dqkon Levski has clearly decided that it is to be the definitive historical statement on Vasil Levski. It is going to achieve this status through volume, by telling the most story on Levski, providing future generations of Bulgarians with sheer quantity of historical epic. Consequently, the audience spends way too much time with a pre-teen Vasil Kunchev, setting up his future battle with the Turks, treacherous Serbs, and some creepy dude in a bowler hat.
There’s a reason most biopics, especially the successful ones, choose to focus on a portion of the subject’s life rather than the whole thing. It’s because the vast majority of peoples’ lives, even the really important people, are really uninteresting. The recent big American film Selma focused exclusively on only one of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s campaigns because it’s more effective narratively to choose one brief period that can illuminate greater truths about the subject’s life and their relation to history. Also, it would’ve been unbearably tedious to watch baby Martin getting his diapers changed, toddling around his childhood home, and meeting baby Lyndon Baines Johnson. The only way to make a child interesting is to, I don’t know, give them superpowers, like the telekinetic Drew Barrymore in Firestarter.
SO, that’s what the film does: gives Levski superpowers. Since, again, I barely understood what was going on, I had a really difficult time following the soft-focus cross-cutting that happened when Levski would stare knowingly at some-or-another Turk. It seemed like the film was trying to communicate that Levski was psychic, but that would be idiotic. However, I’m told that that’s exactly what was going on. Evidently, the young Deacon was gifted the powers of brain-magic by the Almighty. It’s not enough that Levski be the most popular Bulgarian in history—the film makes him a Balkan Jedi wizard.
Part of this, I suspect, was to give the director a chance to show off his mastery of the hottest editing techniques of 1999. The cross-cutting pales in comparison to the AWESOME slo-mo whip-pans deployed when Levski pulls out his dual pistols, like he’s a John Woo hero. While Dqkon Levski mostly plods along through the decades and across unnecessary plot threads, the action kicks into high-gear with techniques that were cool for a brief period between the release of The Matrix and their use in every Brazilian cop show and Tamil-language music video a year and a half later.
But all of this готино camera work is necessary to communicate the over-arching message of the film: not only was Vasil Levski a saint, he was basically Jesus Christ. I come from America, the capital of insane Christianity, so I was familiar with the character of Baron—uh… Boner, the bowler-hat wearing Englishman trying to defile the purity of the Church with his big-city, coastal elitist values. No one loves that bogeyman more than American Christians, but it was still surprising to see this cartoon in Levski.
Though I never knew what he was saying, I could tell what purpose the Baron served just from his costume and his cosmopolitan sneer. He ended up getting his comeuppance, though, when he ultimately found that Levski had been hiding the literal light of God in an urn in Levski’s church. A surprising amount of time is devoted to Levski caring for, hiding, digging up and re-hiding this urn. At least we learn why, as in the end it’s opened up to shine a magical light, like the briefcase in Pulp Fiction.
In case the fact that Levski is literally Godlike is lost on the viewer, the audience is reminded of this at every crucial point. After his capture, Levski is interrogated by Ali Aslan, and there’s a lot of Aslan sneering Hristo?? and Hristianistvo?! through gritted teeth, which even I could understand. And just like Christ, Levski is tempted, by both a big-city Englishman and floozies. When women show up, they’re either temptresses or the future Mrs. Levski. Vasil wins the heart of his wife by using his God-powers to arrange the most cringe-worthy meet-cute I’ve ever seen. At his hanging (hey, even Jesus had to die), Levski looks up at the gallows, improbably fashioned in the shape of a cross.
Every work, no matter how thorough its creator thinks s/he’s being, has to pick what gets included and excluded. For something that aims to be a definitive statement on the life of Vasil Levski, Dqkonût decides to invent Levski as a holy figure at the expense of all else—it’s right there in the title. Throughout Bulgaria’s history, the church has played a crucial role in shepherding the nation’s narrative. However, the fact that Levski was Christian is among the least interesting facts about him.
The process of ridding revolutionaries of their radical qualities is often called “Santa Claus-ification,” but Levski is subjected to an even more egregious “Jesus Christ-ification,” turning him into an absurd cartoon in service of a boring story about Christianity’s triumph over Islam. What’s admirable about Levski’s revolutionary theory was the egalitarian, democratic vision for a country that had long been subject to the authoritarian whims of a sovereign. Like the anarchist Hristo Botev, Levski articulated a radical communitarian vision for all the people of Bulgaria.
Ultimately, the tragedy of Dqakon Levski, beyond the fact that it nearly made me suicidal, is that its idiotic remaking of Vasil Levski into a holy superhero dishonors his real status as a freedom fighter. The film actually makes him seem like less of a man, rather than more.