Most Americans are extremely parochial in their film viewing habits. British films are unusual to them, French films exotic, and Japanese films the furthest they might stretch, if that far. A whole world of cinema exists outside the attention of American viewers, a world filled with worthwhile, and often brilliant, films. When the films in question require tremendous stretching of the viewers' expectations of what a film is, a certain laziness is understandable. Lots of people go to movies strictly for low-thought entertainment, and they should not be expected to endure Last Year at Marienbad or the latest enigma from Godard. But there is still a body of fine, entertaining film hidden away only because of language and cultural barriers. Americans will not read subtitles, for the most part, and don't care to learn about any other nation's history or culture. They barely care about their own nation's, as the relative failure of Glory demonstrated.
This parochialism is particularly evident when one sees a film like Time of Violence. A Bulgarian film, Time of Violence uses precisely the same stylistic conventions as American films, the same form of storytelling, the same approach to character, the same values as to what makes a good story, and, moreover, it satisfies American criteria for being a good movie. There is a basic story, with well-attached subplots, lots of action, villains and heros (with a bit more complexity, perhaps, than most American films), and a logical resolution. The production values are high, the performances excellent, the direction skillful. The film has done very well in many countries, including some as foreign to Bulgarian culture as Japan. So why can't the filmmakers get any distribution deal in the U.S.?
Time of Violence suffers only from its language and its setting. Few Americans know much about the Balkans during the 17th century. But it was one of those proverbial "interesting" times during which it was a curse to live. Most of the Balkans were under the thumb of the Ottoman empire. Islamic empires have more of a reputation for tolerance than most, but the Ottoman empire was showing its ugliest face during this period in Bulgaria. Bulgaria was a strategically important area inhabited by unreliable Christian subjects. The sultan decided that they must all convert to Islam, or die.
Time of Violence focuses on the fate of one valley during this crisis. The son of the miller was taken off by the Turks years ago, while still a boy, to become a janissary. Janissaries were special troops used by the Ottomans. Recruited (involuntarily) from Christian boys, they were separated from their families at an early age, indoctrinated in Islam, and turned into fiercely reliable troops with no allegiance to anyone but the sultan. The miller's son is now a highly trusted janissary, with the task of converting his entire home valley to Islam. But the people there take their religion very seriously, and will not submit. The janissary becomes more and more brutal in his attempts to convert the valley, for he must slaughter them all if they don't take the turban.
The film is painted on a large, sweeping canvas, with many characters and subplots, all cleverly woven into a single story. (This accomplishment is even more remarkable when you consider that the original Bulgarian version was nearly two hours longer, yet there is no sign at all that anything has been cut.) And, surprisingly, this isn't a "vile Turk" story. Director Ludmil Staikov has much more ambitious goals, including an examination of the power of religion and of the destructiveness of violence and fanaticism. Not all of the Christians are good, nor all of the Muslims bad. The Turkish governor of the valley is not loved by his subjects, yet does all he can to avert their doom. He is given a beautiful, tender moment as he leaves the valley forever, in disgrace. Crossing a bridge that leads out of his valley, he notices a stone that has worked out of place. He gets down from his horse, carefully puts the stone back into its place, and then proceeds on to his exile. Even the janissary has his complexities, as he truly wants to spare his people from unnecessary pain, despite having completely transferred his loyalties to the sultan. The screenplay, by Staikov, Georgi Danailov, Mihail Kirkov, and Radoslav Spassov, provides complex shadings of characters and motivations.
Time of Violence is a professionally made film, beautifully photographed, well edited, and with scrupulous care in costuming and set design. The period atmosphere feels perfectly authentic, at least to someone with only passing familiarity with the time and place. The technical aspects of the film are well up to the standard of moderate budget Hollywood movies.
There are some unpleasant moments of torture and brutality in Time of Violence, but they do not exist to excite or titillate. Rather, they are necessary to demonstrate the full scope of the tragedy. Still, some viewers may find themselves looking away during certain scenes. But, otherwise, Time of Violence is a film without flaws. There are no particularly weak points in the film, and many great virtues.
The problem with Time of Violence is really just that most Americans will never get the chance to see it, and, even if they had the chance, most Americans wouldn't take it. Dubbing the film might give it a slightly wider audience, but even then it would be unlikely to draw too many people. If Mountains of the Moon, a pretty good English language African adventure film, can't bring in the audiences, how can a film about a small country's historical woes?
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