4 out of 5 stars

A nightmarish fusion of Borat, Tony Soprano, and Begbie from Trainspotting (1996), the titular Danny of Yavor Petkov’s debut feature is a boorish, self-obsessed small-time businessman, crook, and politician in an unidentified country—which is presumably intended to suggest Petkov’s native Bulgaria.

But for all that it might hint at a parodic commentary on the state of Petkov’s birthplace, Danny. Legend. God. is really more of a character study. Indeed, Petkov cites Rémy Belvaux’s black comedy Man Bites Dog (1992) as one of his primary influences, and says that although “the festival screenings… in Bulgaria coincided with massive anti-corruption protests”, the movie wasn’t “made to carry an important and timely political message.”

“I made the film,” Petkov says, “because I love films like this and I think there aren’t enough of them nowadays.”

We meet Danny (compellingly played by Dimo Alexiev) at the beginning and he dominates throughout, initially half-heartedly collaborating with a British documentary team making a programme about money-laundering (in which he presumably has professional expertise), but soon rejecting that idea and insisting they instead thy make a movie all about him, called Danny. Legend. God.

Reporter Susan (Kate Nichols) quits the project in disgust at Danny’s antics, leaving sound man Jamie (James Ryan Babson) and an unseen camera operator to act as stand-ins for the audience throughout most of the movie. When Danny visits his godson’s teacher to rough him up and  “make him understand how the food chain is situated”, they wonder if they should intervene, but decide not to, perhaps making them—and by extension us—complicit in Danny’s excesses. The cameraman argues “if we were shooting Planet Earth would you go save the zebra from the lions?”

This, as well as the contradiction between Danny’s undeniable magnetism and his sadistic, arrogant lack of empathy, makes Danny. Legend. God. a peculiarly uncomfortable film, as well as a funny one at times. Even as the film gets progressively bleaker and more brutal, however, it’s easy to believe that there’s weakness behind Danny’s bluster and bravado, captured admirably by Alexiev.

He knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. He speaks of “peasants” with derision, launches a random attack on a passing cyclist (“that was a good flying kick, huh?”), implausibly claims to be a devout Christian, a singer, an expert on horses, and anything else that enters his head. Yet he also seems to be genuinely suffering from wounds he believes an unfair world has inflicted on him, and if they’re largely down to his paranoia, his suffering is real. Eventually, thanks to the carefully timed revelations of Petkov’s script and Alexiev’s ability to show us different sides of his character, who nevertheless remains the same man, we come to realise that Danny’s on the verge of a breakdown rather than an illustrious criminal career.

The film builds to a genuinely disturbing peak, particularly a scene involving Danny at his nastiest and Jamie at his most helpless, but on the way (especially at the beginning) there are also rich helpings of physical and verbal comedy. For example, when a corrupt local cop can’t grasp the filmmakers will blur his face in post-production and Danny has to use a plastic bag to do it instead, or when Danny outlines his plan to hijack the government’s cheese reserves, or when he decides to teach his godson to shoot and ends up flinging himself around in the woods like an action hero.

These sequences, where he’s more Borat than Begbie, do occasionally run the risk of dragging, and for a while it’s difficult to believe the material will sustain the running time. Slight inconsistencies in Danny’s English (is it supposed to be fluent or broken?) also make earlier parts of the film a bit hit-and-miss.

But Danny. Legend. God. turns out to be a far better movie than it first appears. Much of this is down to Petkov’s direction and the outstanding camera work by director of photography Ruman Vasilev, which consistently adds just the right amount of visual interest to scenes that could otherwise be mundane fly-on-the-wall presentations. When Danny shows the English team around the shell of a small chocolate factory that he once owned, for example, Petkov has the actor continually pacing around and clambering onto objects, exploiting all the possibilities of the space even while the narrative’s proceeding through dialogue. An award for ‘Best Cinematography’ at the Golden Rose Bulgarian Feature Film Festival last year was well deserved, as indeed was the ‘Best English Language Feature Film’ gong at the Cardiff International Film Festival.

A wealth of strong performances in smaller roles helps, too—among them Andrey Velkov as Danny’s lawyer, Ogy Stoilov as a corrupt newspaper editor planting stories to discredit Danny’s enemies, Georgi Naldzhiev as a hapless banker trying to recover his company’s money, Borislav Markovski as Danny’s sinister godson, Iliana Lazarova as his trophy wife, and (in a tiny part) Alexander MacDonald as the Brit’s producer.

Danny is the indisputable star, though, and of course the character would have it no other way. “We are making cinema”, he says proudly when someone enquires whether he’s being filmed for TV. Right to the end, he remains somewhat unknowable. “I am generally not against voiceover,” Petkov says, “but in this case I didn’t want the audience to be inside Danny’s head. I want them to be right next to him and go on a journey where they can stay with him until the end or distance themselves when he crosses too many lines. Those that don’t hate him from the outset may get a reward. Is he really like this or is he putting on an act?”

At the same time as being unknowable, though, he’s so recognisable. We’ve all met a Danny type, in some form or another, and it’s ultimately not the comedy of a stereotyped 21st-century Euro-gangster that sticks in the mind from Danny. Legend. God… it’s the frighteningly credible human being.


Cast & Crew

writer & director: Yavor Petkov.
starring: Dimo Alexiev, Kate Nichols & James Babson.