THE JUDGMENT Review
Director: Stephan Komandarev
With the growing popularity of eastern European cinema, a culture with a cinematic landscape that is densely populated with socio-political commentary, it’s always a pleasure to see a country like Bulgaria submit a film for Oscar consideration in hopes of finding the next Zvyganitsev or Mungiu. Unfortunately, Stephan Komandarev still has a ways to go until he can fully grasp the nuanced intricacies of the Balkan’s finest.
THE JUDGMENT is undeniably timely filmmaking, following the story of a downtrodden father whose financial instability leads him to a life of smuggling Syrian refugees across the border, all whilst trying to reconcile with his dark past as a soldier on the Bulgarian border. On paper, it’s all quite grim and customarily foreboding, tying in a contemporary geopolitical conflict with dense, character-laden tragedy.
The problem here is that THE JUDGMENT doesn’t ever tackle its story with the nuance of its (admittedly masterful) peers. This isn’t a LEVIATHAN or a BEYOND THE HILLS, but rather a film that exchanges nihilism and stern commentary for sentimentality and catharsis. This is most clearly displayed in THE JUDGMENT’s prioritization of its domestic drama, consequently rendering the Syrian refugees into voiceless sheep that function no differently than if the film would be about drug smuggling.
Naturally, this isn’t an awful decision on Komandarev’s part. After all, it’s his choice as a filmmaker as to how macabre he wants his story to be. But when framing a plot of redemption around something as pertinent as the current refugee crisis, no audience member will blindly accept that the political narrative has been sidelined like some irrelevant subplot in favor of a sappy father-son tale. It also doesn’t help that the father’s dark military past is presented in the lamest, most visually clunky way imaginable, fit with softening filters and echoed screams.
The FBI surveillance van stationed outside Crossfader headquarters
The real problem here is that THE JUDGMENT really never picks up any pace. Its stakes are raised quickly, and lead actor Assen Blatechki gives it his all during several heavily emotional scenes, but Komandarev’s film takes so long to get to its more compelling clashes of ideology that by the time it gets there viewers will have tuned out.
It’s undeniably novel to frame a conflict around the low-income families who are most affected by an influx of refugees, but this detail is never explored past a drunken dinner table feud. As a result, the entire decision to make the film about illegal immigration feels like an effort to gun for awards as opposed to making a political statement.
The cows in this shot make more noise than the refugees in the entire film
THE JUDGMENT can best be described as FROZEN RIVER’s less effective cousin, channeling many of the same narrative beats but forgetting the essential distinction that these protagonists have the responsibility to care for someone’s life, all whilst breaking the law. The fact that THE JUDGMENT fails to seize this emotionally resonant facet of its narrative is ultimately its downfall, resorting to schmaltz over profundity, resulting in a film that’s well-acted, aesthetically pleasing, but never daring enough in any cinematic direction to warrant further attention.
Verdict: Do Not Recommend