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Foreign Film Friday: Western review - Wild West is transported to Bulgaria in this absorbing drama

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Western’s smack-in-the-face title teases a parallel with the classic American Western, and writer-director Valeska Grisebach ostensibly makes good on her promise. The film sees heroes in distant lands seeking adventure and riches, as they embark on a modernising project that ignites conflict with the ‘natives’. Gambling, corruption and revenge all feature. There’s even a loyal horse.

Except the setting isn’t the Wild West of old, but rather modern-day Bulgaria, and its pseudo-colonialists aren’t cowboys but German construction workers. As much as Western is a genre homage, Grisebach’s subtlely powerful film is also exploring what it means to be ‘Western’ in a divided Europe.

The Germans have been commissioned to build a hydroelectric plant in a secluded, mountainous area near the Greek border. Soon, constantly lacking water and supplies of gravel, the project stalls, and the workers have nothing much to do but lounge around in the summer sun at their makeshift fort, which overlooks the region’s striking terrain.

Bored by his hyper-masculine compatriots, our moustachioed hero-of-sorts Meinhard (Meinhard Neumann) finds a white horse and rides into the nearby village. There he befriends Adrian (Syuleyman Alilov Letifov), the owner of the horse and the area’s de facto leader. Back at camp, headstrong project manager Vincent (Reinhardt Wetrek) flirts aggressively with local woman Vyara (Viara Borisova) – a misguided move that ignites tension between villagers and visitors.

The resulting competition of masculinity makes for much of the drama in Western. Between the German and Bulgarian men, this primarily plays out in economic terms, whether that be a game of poker or the construction project itself. There’s a sense the Germans see their trip as a colonial civilising mission – at the very least, Vincent’s talk of ‘building infrastructure’ has a patronising ring to it – and the former Eastern Bloc inhabitants are more than a little distrustful of their temporary Western neighbours.

Meinhard nevertheless manages to gain the favour of the locals, eventually acting as a kind of mediator between the two groups. Despite the language barriers – in the hands of another director, the material might play more straightforwardly as a lost-in-translation farce – the groups develop their own language of expressive looks and awkward gestures. Through a mix of repetition and finger gun miming, for example, Meinhard convinces the Bulgarian men that he was in the French Foreign Legion.

Through Grisebach’s resolutely objective eye, we're left pondering the truth of Meinhard’s claim. Was he really a Legionnaire? What secrets do those grey eyes hold? Why is he so far from home? It's tempting to read existential angst into Meinhard’s rugged face. Or perhaps, more simply, he’s just gone abroad to play cowboy – to smoke cigarettes, woo women and ride a horse.

Whatever the mystery of his motives, actor Meinhard Neumann plays the protagonist with the kind of naturalistic brilliance you could only get from a non-professional actor. He certainly looks the part of the Western star – handsome and lean, with dangerously sharp cheekbones – but brings a vulnerability to the character. It’s a restrained, generous performance that never tries to outshine the rest of the exceptional (also non-professional) ensemble cast.

Some might object to a certain lack of punch deriving from the film’s hard-line commitment to realism. And admittedly, like so many films that privilege theme over plot, Western struggles to find an ending. Those placing all their expectations in the Western parallel might also come away disappointed. This isn’t filmed with the stylised majesty of John Ford or Sergio Leone, and our hero doesn’t ride off into the sunset come the credits, nor are there any shootouts.

That said, part of the brilliance of Grisebach’s film is in how knowingly she plays with our genre expectations. The anticipation of violence bubbles away beneath the surface – only a single gunshot is heard, but it’s used exceptionally well. Really, though, it’s the quieter moments, such as when Meinhard and Adrian accept each other as ‘brothers’, that make Western such an absorbing, memorable film.

Western is out now, distributed by Komplizen Film. 

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