Under Further Review: Reach Your Limits

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As a frequent consumer of American pop culture, I’ve had a certain stereotype of Eastern Europeans burned into my mind: burly and steely-eyed, but also soft-spoken and calm. For better or worse, Reach Your Limits does little to dispel that image, but this Bulgarian documentary does introduce a fascinating Balkan sports culture. The film focuses on orienteer Kirill “Disl” Nikolov, as he attempts to set a new world record; his goal is to run the longest Bulgarian mountain route, the Kom-Emine, in less than five days. To succeed, he’ll have to cover 600 kilometers (370 miles) and ascend a total of 14,600 meters in altitude. Reach Your Limits sets up his quest as an individualistic battle between one man and the literal forces of nature, but the film also portrays a remarkable feat of teamwork by a large support crew that includes a coach, pacesetters, drivers, and doctors.

Allow me but one Dennis Miller moment: Disl’s nonstop run over ragged mountainous terrain reminded me of the legendary first marathon, run by the herald Pheidippides, who sought to inform Athens of the Greeks’ victory against the Persians at the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC. Thankfully, the team ensures that, unlike Pheidippides famously did upon reaching Athens, Disl doesn’t die in the process. There’s an impressive amount of coordination on display, and this aspect of the journey gets a lot of attention. Disl’s supporters set up checkpoints at intervals along the route, so that he can eat, sleep, and receive medical attention. When director Dimo Petkov switches among his multiple cameras and filming locations to show different perspectives of the trek, the viewer understands how the whole team is distributed along the path.

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The film begins in medias res, as members of the crew grind through wet, rocky conditions to rescue Disl (who’s lying in the woods, wrapped in a sleeping bag). It’s a tense tease of a moment, accompanied by appropriately thunderous music. This flash-forward opening provides contrast to the beginning of the run, when a fresh-faced Disl and his team trade hearty encouragements on a beautiful early morning, as dawn settles over the mountains. Although there are groups of tourists and citizens who applaud Disl along the route’s many stops, the history behind his fame and success are left unclear. Reach Your Limits is not a character-driven documentary, but the complications incurred in Disl’s race against time—harsh weather, fatigue, and injured knees, to name a few—provide plenty of drama.

The soundtrack is one of the areas in which the movie is at its most ambitious. It’s surprising to hear several very different styles of music thrown into the mix, but two of the most effective moments in the film have almost no accompanying music at all. The silence fits extremely well with these shots, one in which Disl hobbles away from the camera upon being injured, and another where he’s crouched over in exhaustion.

For much of the film, there’s an impressive sense of calm displayed by everyone involved in the effort. Maybe Bulgarians just speak less frantically than most, but even at one of the lowest points in the journey, when Disl is feeling the cumulative effects of several sprains and an infected toenail, the manner in which he asks for the camera to be pulled back is composed and polite. Near the end of the route, two young pacesetters seem unfazed that their participation has left them (and Disl himself) with stomach viruses. With only about ten minutes left in the film do we hear any true sense of panic, in the form of an urgent yell from a team member over a walkie-talkie.

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The movie employs a variety of directing and editing styles, with mixed success. Some of the jumps between shots are far too quick, pulling away from key moments that deserve sustained attention. There might be a stylized nature shot followed by a scene that would work perfectly as an Asics commercial. Ultimately, the shots that capture the enormity and breadth of the Kom-Emine’s landscape (which dwarfs the men and women treading upon it) are the most memorable and authentic shots in Reach Your Limits, and these can be found throughout the film.

The film reaches its peak in the final act. As the crew is met with freezing rain and knee-high mud on the fifth day, Petkov reflects the mounting danger in his cinematography and direction. He captures intimate scenes at a campsite during the night, with isolated light revealing hazy rain and the hooded silhouettes of the team. Despite their troubles, Disl and his team press on, and Petkov gives their determined optimism emotional weight. The final shot of the film, which shows a small group running in the rain against the headlights of a plodding line of Jeeps, is a fitting final note for a film in which nature’s brutality tests the boundaries of human perseverance.

Reach Your Limits packs a riveting true story–worthy of a full-length documentary–into a tight running time, and as a result, its ambitions sometimes run over. However, the film’s unpredictable narrative (the answer to the big question of “will he make it?” is constantly in doubt) and inspired moments of direction will cement its appeal with both movie fans and endurance athletes.

Reach Your Limits (2015, 54 minutes, Bulgarian with English subtitles) is available on Reelhouse.

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