Karlovy Vary 2024 review: Windless (Pavel G. Vesnakov)

“A heartrending character study focused on the challenging process of plumbing the emotional depths of history, and the importance of embracing even the most uncomfortable parts of one’s past.”

Coming home can be cathartic or challenging, depending on a number of variables that make everyone’s experiences vastly different. For some, their childhood home or the town in which they spent their formative years can feel welcoming and instil a sense of comfort. For others, it can provoke memories of the past that many would prefer to keep hidden. This is the foundation of Windless, in which Pavel G. Vesnakov used his poignant sophomore feature-length effort as a chance to explore both sides of the conversation, creating a deeply moving portrait of the experience of returning to the place of one’s childhood, and the challenges that emerge when we are forced to confront some of life’s harsher truths. The film tells the simple story of a young man returning to the small Bulgarian village in which he was raised after the death of his father. He intends to complete some administrative tasks that have to do with their former home, but in the process begins to unearth secrets about his family history that he had not previously encountered, and which cause him to reconsider certain aspects of his upbringing. A tender but hard-hitting social realist drama carefully pieced together by a director whose simple approach carries the most weight, Windless is a powerful film about examining your personal history and liberating yourself from the sometimes unbearable burden of the past.

Vesnakov takes his cue from an established canon of films that all centre on the trials and tribulations of those who set out to return home, which can be a very emotional experience. Windless seeks to explore the past, primarily focusing on Bulgaria in the decades following the fall of the Soviet Union, and how the scars of the past still run deep in the country, held there by the collective memory of those who experienced it and passed on the generational trauma to their offspring. The protagonist voyages to the small town in which he was raised and discovers that a relatively simple administrative task of relocating the bodies of his deceased family members (as part of an effort to modernise the town by introducing a golf course) comes with many complications, some of them bureaucratic while others are deeply psychological. The film explores the culture through stories and anecdotes delivered by a bevy of characters that the protagonist encounters during his short return. The idea of relocating bodies or clearing out a childhood home is not inconsequential to the plot, since it points towards the theme of exhuming the remains of the past, a laborious and emotional process, albeit one that is necessary and can result in sheer catharsis once it has been overcome. Throughout the film, the characters make a conscious effort to remove the burden of the past through moving what is vital and disposing of everything that is unnecessary, whether remnants of their country’s dark history, or personal artefacts that played an important role in their upbringing, but which are no longer important in their ongoing lives.

Every piece of commentary we find scattered throughout this film makes it quite clear that Vesnakov was not only intent on exploring the country’s past, but also crafting a more intimate portrait of a complex protagonist, through whom each idea is filtered. There is more to the theme of homecoming than just the social and cultural component, and we find that Windless is as much about Bulgaria’s past as it is a deeply personal account of a young man trying to find his way home, both literally and metaphorically. Kaloyan, affectionately known as “Koko” by those who knew him before his active attempts to embrace a harsher form of modernity, is a fascinating protagonist – at a cursory glance, he seems to have embraced a stereotypical image of masculinity, both in terms of appearance and demeanour. However, we soon discover that this coarse, overly aggressive persona masks his insecurities, his efforts to adopt a more callous appearance being a deliberate attempt to escape a traditional upbringing. Ognian “FYRE” Pavlov is astonishing in the role, taking on the layers of complexity that simmer beneath the surface of the character and reconfiguring them to be three-dimensional, rather than relying on archetypal tropes to play the part. Identity is as integral to the plot of Windless as the historical and social context, and it is through the exploration of Kaloyan’s growing understanding of his past, as well as his underlying desire to find a place to call home, that the film makes some of its most poignant and heartfelt statements.

Windless is a fascinating film, primarily for how it openly embraces the more challenging aspects of its narrative. It is beautifully directed, with Vesnakov’s attention to narrative detail equally matched by his visual compositions, which are simple but stunning. The tone of the film is intense but poignant, and it never seems impelled to include layers of hysterics to make its underlying themes more clear. Instead, it focuses on being an unfurnished, direct drama that explores the inner workings of a young man caught in a proverbial tug-of-war between tradition and modernity, eager to emancipate himself from the former, but knowing that only through embracing it can he truly come into his own identity. The film moves at a quiet and meditative pace, and much of the story revolves around conversations between individuals, particularly in the conflict that occurs when someone whose life is guided by the dismissal of traditions is suddenly confronted by those who have embraced the past and allowed it to form their worldview. The director makes his beliefs abundantly clear throughout the film – only by questioning the past are we able to understand the present and move towards the future. Gentle in some parts and callous in others, and driven by a genuine sense of wanting to make some bold proclamations about the past and the role it plays in forming one’s identity, Windless is a heartrending character study focused on the challenging process of plumbing the emotional depths of history, and the importance of embracing even the most uncomfortable parts of one’s past, since it is only through understanding where we come from that we can truly move forward.