Like most other countries that were under Communist control, Bulgaria clearly struggles with a past of secrecy, isolation, and a bizarre national identity
that surely makes for unique and interesting cinematic sensitivities. In The Color of the Chameleon, director Emil Hristow weaves a plot
that will reward the patient viewer who can take in all the puzzling small details and complex philosophical ideas. Deliberately unorthodox, the narrative
utilizes political satire to comment on the Bulgarian society’s transition into a semi-functional democracy.
Growing up believing himself an orphan, Batko (Rushi Vidinliev) has struggled to fit
into the system his entire life. A lover of scientific magazines, frequently reprimanded for pleasuring himself as a young boy, he has now discovered
the aunt who raised him is actually his mother. When he is misdiagnosed with schizophrenia, Batko is released from his military duties and decides to go
back to school. He is soon recruited by the secret police as an informant to spy and collect information on a subversive group that operates from his
campus. It seems as if he has finally found a purpose in life; he diligently moves into a house owned previously by an amateur filmmaker and takes a job
making prints. Mentioned in the film as an underground forbidden title, the book Zincograph – upon which the film is based – is the text that the Anti-Communists he must spy on are using as their mantra. Logically Batko gets deeply familiar with the book whose central message is the fact that
secrecy is both the source of power and the reason for the demise of the omnipotent Communist government.
In spite of the fact that he has devotedly performed above and beyond the call of duty, Batko is unjustifiably fired due to a silly mistake committed by his overly sexual landlord. Out of a job and simultaneously dealing with his mother’s death, the protagonist concocts a slow-burning murderous revenge plot that will equally punish both those in charge and their opposition. Using the skills he learned during his brief run with the secret police, he devices a fictitious web of spies from the
world’s leading secret organizations: CIA, MI5, and the KGB. Living up to the film’s title, he takes on a chameleonic role pretending to be all of them,
manipulating, and planting information that will pay off in the riveting conclusion. Through Vidinliev’s amazingly unsettling performance, deranged Batko
represents the lack of certainty and disconnection from the outside world that an entire generation of lost youth endured, not only in Bulgaria, but also
in many Eastern European countries.
Even while dissecting the nation’s troubling past, the film has a lighter side and the comedic elements often shine thanks to their contrast to the irreverent darkness of the film. Batko has his very own love story with a local handicapped beauty Pravda (Lilia Abadjieva), who, ironically, is in charge of the local movie theater. She is obsessed
with the classic film Casablanca, which fittingly includes a scene in which Humphrey Bogart helps a Bulgarian couple escape. That scene
rings true to Pravda and Batko’s romance and it’s depicted in several beautifully photographed black-and-white dreamlike sequences that strangely fit in
with the overall mood of the piece.
There are numerous references to Communist-era iconic art like the prominent use of the painting “My God, Help Me to Survive This Deadly Love” as a symbol
of the toxic pacts that helped spread the ideology in the region. However, for all the historical tokens, there are many other efforts to mock and
ridicule the system, like Batko’s bizarre fake plan to regulate orgasms and sexual behavior for the benefit of the majority. Stylistically the film
resembles the earlier works of French director Jean Pierre-Jeunet as it carries a distinctively obscure tone and a gloomy, yet vivid magical realist visual
aesthetic. Hristow cleverly infuses his film with the country’s own preoccupations with the lack of privacy and creates an impressively original cinematic
statement. In this, his feature debut, the director captures a chapter in his country’s history and revises it with a compelling story that demands
rigorous attention. The Color of the Chameleon is one of the most original European films in recent memory; its multicolored themes are
universally relevant, yet authentically Bulgarian.