A guy stumbles into a bag of money. It’s one of cinema’s most irresistible hooks, and Glory proves its durability in unexpected ways. As the camera follows him like a Dardennes-style shadow, Bulgarian railway worker Tsanko Petrov (Stefan Denolyubov) silently passes men siphoning gas from a railcar, pauses to tighten a few lug nuts, and comes upon a trail of banknotes that ends at a jackpot. Though Tsanko only pockets two bills before reporting the windfall to the authorities, the ramifications of his actions fan outward to become a broad indictment of class divisions and political and media corruption. On top of all this, Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov’s deftly crafted follow-up to The Lesson is also a ticking-clock thriller of sorts.
Save for perhaps his pet rabbits, Tsanko’s primary connection is to his watch, an analog timepiece made by the Russian company Slava, which translates to Glory in English. Tsanko loses the watch after the Ministry of Transport decides to exploit his act of nobility in order to wallpaper over stories about the agency’s entrenched corruption: The ministry awards Tsanko a cheap digital replacement as a reward and then misplaces his family keepsake, an obvious symbol of his sense of order, tradition, and honesty (he resets the Slava before leaving for work every morning). His lost watch places an increasingly heavy burden on Julia Staikova (Margita Gosheva), the ministry’s head of public relations, who works to orchestrate Tsanko’s hero narrative while she’s actively burying less flattering stories and wrestling with her biological clock.
Julia is a commanding, complicated antagonist, directly reminiscent of the lawyer Tilda Swinton played in Michael Clayton as she dabs her armpits with tissues between meetings. Grozeva and Valchanov, though, are less interested in the pageantry of moral rot than they are at exposing the vile behavior inherent in defending an indefensible government. Julia and her equally devious, slightly less stylish minions mock Tsanko’s bedraggled persona and his aggressive stutter. (Tsanko’s disability seems like a sympathy-baiting device, and though it does sap the character of some complexity, it serves an exquisite comic purpose as a PR person’s nightmare.) Once his frustration over his lost timepiece threatens to take down the Ministry of Transport, their behavior becomes even more ruthless and unnervingly efficient.
Glory is similarly blunt and methodical, and much like the work of the auteurs of the Romanian New Wave, it generates its suspense from the inevitability of an outcome that simultaneously jostles corrupt but powerful institutions and makes unwitting monsters of those who try to combat it. The film excels at this kind of mutually assured dismay; its rough-hewn naturalism belies an exquisite sense of pace and a sneaky breed of gallows humor, much of which comes in the form of a subplot involving Julia and her husband Valeri’s (Kitodar Todorov) attempt to achieve embryonic fertilization.
These scenes feel pat and excessively symbolic in relation to the surrounding film, but they resonate beyond issues of work-life balance and gender politics, situating Julia in a manic world of incessant phone calls and appointments radically detached from Tsanko’s ruddy, nearly silent existence. At one point, Valeri forces Julia to stop working for a daily injection; refusing to pause for more than a moment, she strips in her office and, realizing that co-workers may walk by, shields herself with the European flag. It’s a funny image of an economy that forces society to be at odds with itself, as a business class constantly trying to outrun its entrenched problems as lifelong public workers are left to wonder who they’re serving, and why they’ve been left behind.