Zift was the Bulgarian entry for the Best Foreign Film Award at the 2009 Oscars. It didn’t make the shortlist and the category was eventually won by Yojiro Takita‘s Departures. The title refers to a resin used in asphalt that was also used as chewing gum by street gangs. Its more common usage is as a slang term for ‘shit’. From these two titbits of trivia we can discern a couple of things: that Zift takes itself seriously; that Zift doesn’t take itself too seriously. This is a slick piece of filmmaking with an emphasis on the visual - snappy editing, black and white ’scope photography - and in possession of a sardonic, darkly comic wit.
The film is centred on Moth, a shaven headed and heavily tattooed convict approaching the end of his sentence. His voice-over informs us it was for a crime he did not commit - murder at the time of the 1944 coup d’état - though that’s not to say he’s a complete innocent. As Zift’s twin narratives will show - one of his life after prison, the other a collection of flashbacks relating his earlier days - he was involved in the theft of a diamond whose whereabouts remain unknown. The main thrust of the film concerns itself with Moth’s pursuit by former colleague and fellow criminals, each of whom wants the gem for themselves. They occasionally catch up too, resulting in various bouts of torture and betrayal, even a little poisoning. Meanwhile, those flashbacks allow us - or rather Moth, given his near-continuous voice-over - to explain and expand upon his relationships with these one-time acquaintances.
At times Zift can feel simply like a succession of violent episodes: a bit of electric shock treatment follows a boxing match follows a particularly effective head butt, and so on. Combined with their often deadpan execution and the underlying dark humour, it’s easy to assume early on that this will simply be another post-Tarantino crime flick. It certainly has the requisite style to go along with the brutality, plus there’s even a post-modern nod to Charles Vidor’s Gilda so as to make clear Zift’s noir aspirations. (The novel on which the film is based was entitled Zift: Socialist Noir.) Yet any such assumptions are dispelled as soon at it becomes clear how inventive the whole thing is. A chase through a women’s sauna which also happens to involve a runaway glass eye is one particularly imaginative example. Similarly the dialogue contains some genuine flavour, as in the scene where various patients in a hospital waiting room attempt to out-gross one another with little tales. Each also cues up yet another violent interlude, but at least it’s done with some wit and attention to detail.
If comparisons are necessary then such mid-nineties efforts as Darkness in Tallinn from Estonia and In China They Eat Dogs from Denmark would be more apt. These too were crime dramas told with a certain amount of individual style and a darkly comic/satirical bent. They also, much like Zift, came from countries whose cinematic output was largely unknown over here. (The situation in terms of Danish cinema has changed somewhat since thanks to Lars von Trier and the Dogme 95 films.) And arguably, much like Zift once more, they would have more sizeable cult followings if only they were more widely seen.
This is a fairly cursory release from ISIS with little in the way of extras and only a so-so presentation. The transfer is blighted by ghosting, suggesting an NTSC-PAL conversion. (The running time is equal to that of the 2010 IFC disc from the US.) Given the amount of heavy movement in any given scene this is understandably a distraction and cannot help but disappoint in the face of an other excellent looking presentation: anamorphic, original aspect ratio, damage free source, excellent contrast levels which really do highlight the black and white photography. The soundtrack is similarly curtailed, here present in a simple stereo offering as opposed to its original 5.1 and, more to the point, one that comes with noticeable distortion during the more hectic moments. Also, be warned that the optional English subs are considerably smaller than is standard. Extras are limited to a series of colour behind-the-scenes stills, the original trailer plus promos for other ISIS releases.