Milena Andonova: Monkeys in Winter (Maimuni prez zimata), 2006

reviewed by Yana Hashamova© 2006

Milena Andonova’s Monkeys in Winter portrays the destinies, anxieties, and internal conflicts of three Bulgarian women whose lives revolve around motherhood and children. Their stories unfold during the last forty years of Bulgaria’s most recent social and political history, which is organically interwoven with the women’s personal dramas. In a captivating and challenging way, the director positions motherhood at the center of the film. A source of passions and desires, motherhood becomes the driving force in the lives of these women and the cause of intentional or unintentional murders and deaths.

The film opens with a montage of brief scenes presenting the three heroines: Tana (Angelina Slavova) in 2001, Lukretsia (Diana Dobreva) in 1981, and Dona (Bonka Ilieva-Bonnie) in 1961. The director then proceeds to develop Dona’s story: she is a gorgeous and sensual woman of Roma ethnicity and viewers meet her at the time of her divorce, when her former husband and his new wife come to take some of Dona’s furniture. A local representative of the authorities (Filip Trifonov) offers her a job in the small town’s hygiene department, asking her to become an informant. A clever cut to the next scene of streets being washed suggests various associations with communist practices: brainwashing and political cleansing.

The camera then jumps to Lukretsia who is finishing Law school in Sofia and hopes to be offered a job in the capital rather than being assigned to the provinces. Disorienting and disturbing underwater shots depict Lukretsia’s dreams of drowning in a swimming pool, and reveal a complex and difficult relationship between her and her mother. Brief scenes showing Lukretsia’s roommates from the dormitory hint at the generational conflicts and deep social problems of the 1980s, when Bulgarian youth lost all moral ground and dreamed of empty and easy goals: their only desire was to marry and remain in Sofia. After Lukretsia is denied a job in Sofia, she is introduced to an odd resident of the city with the hope of marrying him. A grotesque and distressing meeting between the two ends with her pregnancy. In the meantime, she meets a young Frenchman (Sava Lolov) and they fall in love, which further complicates her situation as she attempts to abort her fetus to no avail.

The camera jumps again, this time to 2001 and follows Tana, who prays for a child. Around a small isolated mountain chapel at the bank of a lake, people have gathered to pray and ask God for help. A woman voices the problems of the time: the world has turned around and become confused; God is the only hope for many people. A camera jump returns viewers to 1961, when Dona is blackmailed and forced by the representative of the authorities to marry an older invalid (Stefan Mavrodiev). In a succinct scene, Dona learns from her older daughter that the invalid has been abusing her daughters. She smashes his head with a shovel and runs away with her children. Through a winter long shot, the camera shows Dona who is now desperate and helpless. She decides to leave her children in her hometown. With another jump, the camera switches to a night view of an apartment bloc and the sound of a baby crying: Lukretsia, in a state of shock, leaves her baby on the street near some garbage cans.

While Dona’s and Lukretsia’s stories are almost completed, Tana’s is only at its beginning. Viewers know only that she is happily married but has problems conceiving a child. The drama in this family accelerates when fertility tests reveal the husband’s low sperm count. After antagonistic scenes in which the husband (Valentin Tanev) refuses to accept the test results, the couple is shown reconciled and enjoying a vacation with friends in the country. News of Tana’s pregnancy, however, does not bring happiness, for the husband suspects her of sleeping with another man and beats her up. During a violent scuffle, he suffers a heart attack and dies. The last two scenes of the film depict Tana with her toddler playing in the snow and Lukretsia, who appears to have lost her mind, as she seeks her baby amidst garbage cans. The camera follows her with a long take as she disappears into a wintry forest. Winter shots conclude the sad and tragic destinies of these women, and visually unite their three stories within an original narrative structure.

The aesthetics of the film, the editing, the compositions of shots, and the transitions between shots, scenes, and sequences demonstrate homage to the best traditions of Bulgarian cinema. Without simply imitating him, Milena Andonova and the producer, Nevena Andonova, show remarkable sensitivity toward the cinema aesthetics of their father Metodi Andonov, one of Bulgaria’s greatest filmmakers. In several scenes, viewers can detect intriguing and imaginative intertextual references to compositions from Metodi Andonov’s The White Room (Bialata staia, 1968) and The Goat’s Horn (Koziiat rog, 1972). The early scene of Dona’s divorce scandal, with her husband’s new wife positioned in the doorframe and her two children hugging in bed, resembles a scene from The White Room. Another couple of scenes―Lukretsia wearing a folk dress and Tana’s husband’s violent outburst―transport viewers to scenes from The Goat’s Horn.

Milena Andonova also creatively employs one of her father’s signature devices: enhancing a dramatic moment with powerful vocals and effecting a transition from one scene to the next, from one destiny and time to another. While Metodi Andonov used a woman’s voice for the vocal track in The Goat’s Horn, Milena Andonova incorporates a man’s voice, which powerfully stands out against the women’s stories. In contrast to her father, however, Milena Andonova reveals a sense of humor noticeable in early scenes that are light and comical, and that immediately follow dramatic moments. Even though she attempts to integrate such scenes later in the narrative too, not all of them work as effectively as the earlier ones. One of the successful comical, yet poignant scenes includes a lab technician (Nikolina Arnaudova) who lacks any sensitivity and professionalism, and who loudly, even offensively, scolds Lukretsia—only later to announce her pregnancy results. After twenty more years, the same lab technician serves Tana and her husband, and her attitude is unchanged. Although the film offers numerous scenes filled with tension and strident hysteria, there are also light, serene, and comical moments that create a balanced cinematic narrative.

The photography and camera work of Rali Ralchev is professional, accurate, and more specifically, it is receptive both to people’s dramas and nature’s beauty. Although the stories of three women in three different periods are not shown chronologically, the cinematic narrative is lucid and engaging. Petar Popzlatev’s editing is masterful and entrancing. In the second half of the film, the cutting becomes more dynamic, which accelerates the plot and increases the tension. Alternations of dramatic scenes with beautiful nature landscapes, which contrast with the not-so-beautiful reality, also work to balance the structure of the narrative.

Although all three actresses are convincing in conveying the women’s internal conflicts and portraying multi-faceted characters, the most captivating is Bonka Ilieva-Bonnie, who is not a professional actress. In their supporting roles, Filip Trifonov, Stefan Mavrodiev, and Nikolina Arnaudova offer striking performances. Even though some liberal (not to say feminist) viewers may find the presentation of motherhood—and especially the drastic circumstances and passions that surround it—a bit conservative, the film offers many positive and encouraging notes and should be commended for calling attention to women’s desires and sentiments. A film, in which women lead the narrative and express their own (sometimes conflicting) voices, is worthy of notice.

Yana Hashamova, Ohio State University

Monkeys in Winter, Bulgaria and Germany, 2006
Color, 111 minutes
Director: Milena Andonova
Screenplay: Maria Stankova and Milena Andonova
Director of Photography: Rali Ralchev
Director of Photography of winter episodes: Radoslav Spasov
Production designer: Georgi Todorov
Costume designer: Elena Stoianova
Music: Konstantin Tsekov
Cast: Bonka Ilieva-Bonnie, Diana Dobreva, Angelina Slavova, Valentin Tanev, Sava Lolov, Stefan Mavrodiev, Filip Trifonov, Nikolina Arnaudova, Asen Blatechky.
Producer: Nevena Andonova
Co-producers: Christine Rupert, Helga Binder
Production: Proventus Film House Ltd.
Awards: Best Film Award at the 41st Karlovy Vary International Film Festival (East of the West competition) 2006

Milena Andonova: Monkeys in Winter (Maimuni prez zimata), 2006

reviewed by Yana Hashamova© 2006

Updated: 09 Nov 06