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The Color of the Chameleon

The Eastern European sense of humor—dry, mordant, bleak, and absurdist—is not for all tastes, but it’s an undeniable change of pace, and The Color of the Chameleon, from Bulgaria, is comparable to just about nothing you’ve seen on a movie screen in recent memory.

Scripted from his own novel by Vladislav Todorov and directed by Emil Christov (a veteran cinematographer), The Color of the Chameleon follows the career of Batko, a misfit recruited out of college by the secret police during the Communist era. His assignment is to infiltrate a group of intellectuals and anarchists that meets secretly to report on what they’re up to. Turns out they’re essentially a book club studying Zincograph, a novel whose hero works at a zinc etching facility. Left to his own devices by his handler, Batko takes a job as a zinc etcher in order to learn more about the group.

At this point I have to abandon any attempt to describe the plot, which is an intricate maze of self-reflection. A prologue showing a young Batko being upbraided by his school headmaster for excessive “onanism” keys you in to the infinite self-fixations of both our protagonist and the spy system that grips the country. The story continues though the fall of Communism, as the disgraced Batko finds a way of putting the information he has collected to his own profit.

There are clearly levels of The Color of the Chameleon that will go over the heads of those who haven’t spent a lot of time in Bulgaria. The performance of star Ruscen Vidinliev probably has more impact to audiences who recognize him as a popular singer, and no doubt there are numerous pointed political references. How much you’ll get out of this depends both on your willingness to overlook those specifics while following the numerous other threads the film weaves from beginning to end. But even casual viewers are likely to find some entertainment in the spectacle of paranoid spies chasing their own tails into oblivion.

The Color of the Chameleon will be screened at Squeaky Wheel next Wednesday at 7pm.

Watch the trailer for The Color of the Chameleon

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