TIFF Review: In 'The Father,' Death and Aging Create Complex Family Dynamics Directed by Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov

Starring Ivan Barnev, Ivan Savov, Tanya Shahova
TIFF Review: In 'The Father,' Death and Aging Create Complex Family Dynamics Directed by Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov
Following the death of his mother Valentina, Pavel (Ivan Barnev) heads out on an excursion to attend her funeral and visit his father, Vasil (Ivan Savov). The film opens up during the interment, where Vasil becomes adamant that his photographer son take a picture of Valentina's corpse before they lower her into the ground. This dark and hilarious scene sets the mood for the entire film.
After the funeral, Vasil and Pavel are at odds — they struggle to achieve a harmonious father-son relationship, and are in a constant state of conflict. When a neighbour receives a call from Valentina after her passing, Vasil becomes obsessed with hunting down her spirit in an effort to communicate with her. Their fundamentally different viewpoints cause a riff between them when Vasil seeks aid from a spiritual guru in an effort to contact Valentina in the afterlife.
Everything goes completely off the rails while Pavel struggles to keep Vasil from joining a cult or wandering off into the woods and dying alone. Trying to maintain some semblance of normalcy, he resorts to all kinds of tactics to control his wily father, catching himself in some less-than-desirable situations, often to an embarrassing yet heart-wrenching effect.
The Father is fundamentally an examination of the relationships we lead with our parents once they become too elderly to care for themselves. Pavel is a soon-to-be father, but simultaneously, without his mother to care for his eccentric father, he becomes a de facto caregiver for Vasil as well. As a particularly difficult person, Vasil inspires resentment from Pavel, who just wants to go home to his wife. Conversely, Vasil feels controlled and annoyed by Pavel's attempts to steer him into the direction of safety. And while their relationship is strained, Pavel's love for his father is palpable. He continues to care for his dad despite his difficult demeanour, even at the expense of his other relationships.
Set in the Bulgarian countryside, the film is full of fun quirks that provide depth and context: Pavel's mother was an actor in a communist-era TV series; the spiritual guru's headquarters reside in the Museum of National Revolt; and Pavel's wife begs him to bring her some homemade quince and geranium jam from a local granny. This expression of identity is integral to the film's cohesion and adds a charming touch.
Irritations and bickering aside, the heartwarming and unexpected relationship that Vasil and Pavel share comes to light throughout their trying adventure. The Father is an undeniably endearing ode to complicated family dynamics that refuses to spare its audience any bit of vicarious embarrassment.
(Abraxas Film)