In the few weeks since Borat Subsequent Moviefilm dropped on Amazon Prime, Rudy Giuliani has unsurprisingly remained the movie’s most noteworthy conversational export. News headlines about Giuliani and his most unusual way of removing a mic were the topic of the day at whatever the pandemic-era equivalent of the watercooler is. But it’s to the credit of the mockumentary’s other buzzed-about element and secret weapon, Bulgarian actress Maria Bakalova, that its shocking climax is as effective as it is in targeting Donald Trump’s private attorney. Borat Subsequent Moviefilm may have broken Bakalova into the mainstream with her multidimensional portrayal of the oddball Tutar. But it isn’t until we go back to her first lead role, in the 2018 Bulgarian-language drama Transgression, that we can fully appreciate how well-suited Bakalova was to play someone searching for identity in a foreign place where the media has a key influence on the perception of women.
The gung-ho hilarity and up-for-anything attitude Bakalova brings to the Borat sequel makes for the closest thing to a can’t-miss-it performance that 2020 has provided. It’s one thing that Bakalova holds her own against Sacha Baron Cohen and his seasoned on-camera bravura. It’s another thing altogether to supplant him as the breakout of the sequel, shepherding the soul of a movie—that nobody expected to be as perversely touching as it is—while keeping in hilarious lockstep with the scuzzy legacy that the Borat name implies. Her impressive performance is also intriguingly ripe for potential awards season recognition.
This ability comes foreshadowed in a surprisingly different film. Transgression finds Bakalova operating in a more nuanced key as Yana, a teenage avatar of youthful vulnerability and daring who runs off with a has-been rocker that’s twice her age. What’s her deal? The ambiguity ends up being part of the movie’s point; while Borat Subsequent Moviefilm underlines the Trump era’s hypocritical American values in bold Sharpie, Transgression uses the pen’s cap to gently nudge us toward simmering debates about agency and womanhood. Flashbacks to the strange relationship between Yana and Stoil (Rossen Pentchev) are spliced with scenes in which she finds herself as a talk show guest attempting to defend a connection that is viewed as immoral and reckless by everyone else. And that’s before it’s suggested that Stoil, looking a bit like Mickey Rourke, may in fact be her father.
Yeah, Transgression’s a complicated movie, one defined less by decisions and more by the havoc those decisions create. It’s also a movie that offers little clarity while ping-ponging between past and present, but—like Borat—it’s Bakalova’s captivating turn that provides a center of gravity to orbiting questions of individuality and self-worth. Val Todorov, writer/director of Transgression, is quick to notice the similarities. From his perspective, “both movies actually belong to the same subgenre: ethnofiction, a blend of documentary and fiction in the area of visual anthropology,” respectively peeling back the layers of society in Bulgaria and America.
Yet while there’s thematic overlap between the two stories, they’re still tonal opposites, and the distinction begins with Bakalova’s appearance before extending to her performance. Borat mines satire from the extremes of Tutar as the titular weirdo’s caged, haggard and unibrowed daughter before she sheds baggy clothes for the camera-ready makeup and blonde hair of a Tomi Lahren lookalike. She’s nearly unrecognizable in Todorov’s movie: A pensive presence reminiscent of Alicia Vikander, suited up in leather jacket and pants with a weary skepticism that’s kept on a low boil before the chaotic finale. If you thought Tutar’s exaggerated high shrill was Bakalova’s natural voice, Transgression puts into sharp relief how much it’s a part of the Borat act; in it, Bakalova speaks with a deeper tenor and conviction, but that Tutar voice is still observed (and perhaps born) when Yana briefly personifies a storybook character. “I’m a cold icicle broken into two,” Yana declares in the familiar child-like tone. At a point when Yana’s become an unstable protagonist in her own story, we start to notice Tutar’s unpredictability lurking behind Bakalova’s eyes.
While Tutar is a comical creation revealing deeply embedded societal truths, Yana is an understated Rubik’s Cube. Transgression only works if Bakalova is able to tread the line separating defiance and doubt, while also being mindful of the assumptions being thrown her way—not just from others in the narrative, but from the audience too (Bakalova was only 22 when Transgression premiered and looks even younger in the movie). The role is charged with an extraordinary degree of difficulty and she emerges as the best thing about Transgression.
Perhaps Todorov discovered that too; the filmmaker says he tinkered with his screenplay to accommodate Bakalova’s malleable charisma, ultimately turning what was originally a “more manipulative and colder character” into a “free-spirited and anarchistic Yana.” You can see that in action. As the drama unfurls, Transgression begins to mold itself to a central performance that we find ourselves intrigued with, sympathizing for and ultimately haunted by. What Bakalova does in Borat is indeed “impressive,” but so are her contributions to the hot button-pushing project that is Transgression.
It’s easy to imagine Yana and Tutar as foils, but they’re navigating the same strange terrain. Both Bakalova characters live alongside men with thorny motives who may or may not be viewing them as trophies rather than people. Both make a case to the viewer about how the world works, while dancing along the knife’s edge of self-destruction. At the same time, as ironic as their connection is, Transgression and the Borat sequel function as cinematic opposites that inform each other, providing a portrait of Bakalova’s remarkable range: Across just two movies, she does almost everything an actress can be asked to do, including some things (in the case of Borat) that few would envy.
San Antonio-based writer and CCA member David Lynch regularly reviews new movies for the local CBS affiliate in between binging directors’ filmographies and wondering what he’ll do when he runs out of Blu-Ray shelf space. He can be followed on Twitter at @RealDavidLynch. And, no, there’s no relation.