If you’ve ever wanted to see a Western out of Bulgaria, Hombre is your chance. It’s a fascinating film, attempting to use the familiar narratives from the West as an allegory for pan-Balkan co-operation. If we don’t all get on, the idea runs, there’ll be a lot worse to deal with than a gunfight at the OK Corral.
Whatever else it is or isn’t, it’s a very well cast film. Everyone here feels real, and also manages to exist as a character you might expect to encounter either around a camp fire in a Bulgarian forest in the 21st century or spooning up pork and beans in 19th-century Utah.
There’s not too much of a plot, though what there is has been messed about with chronologically, a Tarantino influence maybe, so we first meet Angel (good Western name) walking off into the sunset in a classic western finish, before the action snaps back to show him escaping from the clutches of a murderous bad hat by jumping into the back of a truck. This eventually disgorges him at a charcoal-makers’ encampment where most of the rest of the story plays out.
Snapping back in time a bit further, we discover Angel, pre-murderous encounter, picking up a pretty hitch-hiker. All we know is that something eventually happens between Angel, the unnamed pretty woman and the guy who wants to murder him but quite what it is writer Emil Tonev and director Zahari Paunov withhold from us for as long as they can to give the film some much-needed dramatic tug.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Angel meets the guys – an ethnically ragtag bunch of misfits including a Gypsy, a Macedonian, a Serb, a Pomak (a Bulgarian-speaking Muslim) – who spend their days logging trees and their nights drinking rakia and doing variations on the dick-measuring campfire chat you get in westerns. There is one woman in the camp, Nadya (Stefka Yanorova), a Russian, the boss is the ageing but wise and patriarchal Ioan – aka the Pastor (Lyubomir Bachvarov) – and this is where Hombre (Ivan Rankov) also enters the scene. He’s the sort of young enthusiast who in an American Western would be called Kid, and is the camp’s good-natured, slow-witted mascot, a young man who wears a holster and a cowboy hat and picked up the nickname because of all the westerns he watched when he was a child in an orphanage – Hombre (the 1967 film starring Paul Newman) being less of a mouthful as a name than The Magnificent Seven.
For a while it looks like, rather than Hombre, a variation on Shane is going to play out, with Hombre as the bright-eyed kid and Angel as a variation on Alan Ladd’s mysterious badass. But no.
Hombre’s gun, we learn, is a relic from the 1912 Balkan War and signifies that we’re in deeply allegorical territory. This mishmash of guys rub along well enough while chopping trees or playing football, drinking and eating, but it doesn’t take much to spark off a conflict, at which point an ethnic difference rapidly upscales into an ethnic grievance. Message: stay busy, focus on the task at hand, don’t brood.
There is probably more of the sitting-around-the-old-camp-fire than the film actually needs, but Paunov takes it all at a measured pace, as if it’s no problem, and it largely isn’t, his DP Ivan Vatsov dredging everything in warm, warm filtration as if to emphasise that, relatively speaking, it’s fairly idyllic out here, and in fact at times the film feels like it wants to be that interlude in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid when the bicycle comes out and Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head parps away mellifluously on the soundtrack.
I enjoyed this looseness, characterised by the sonorous Spanish-guitar soundtrack (I don’t know who it’s by and I must have missed it in the Cyrillic end credits). I also enjoyed the performances, particularly by Valeri Yordanov as Angel, who’s got one of those faces that’s taken a punch or two in a bar fight, and fits the bill as the new guy stirring things up. It must be said though that this isn’t a film for people who expect a whole lot of stuff to happen. It broods.
Is there a shoot-out at the end? I can report that there is. Will someone die? Yes, but who? Will the cause of pan-Balkan co-operation have been advanced? Not sure about that at all.
© Steve Morrissey 2021