Warning: Some minor spoilers for Borat 2 follow.
In Amazon’s Borat Subsequent Moviefilm (which hits Prime Video on Friday), Sacha Baron Cohen’s most famous alter ego, the imbecilic Kazakh journalist Borat Sagdiyev, has become a victim of his own notoriety. Recognized by passersby in the streets of Galveston, Texas, Baron-as-Borat takes to wearing various disguises, turning up in the sequel to 2006’s epochal Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan as “Country Steve” (a hillbilly yokel who performs a song at a Trump rally with the couplet, “Dr. Fauci, what we gonna do?/Inject him with the Wuhan Flu”), Phillip Drummond III (in a bad fake beard and tuxedo), and more grotesquely as a “typical Jew” (the suicidal Borat visits a synagogue to “await the next mass shooting”). He even dressed as Donald Trump.
Perhaps because of this conundrum of recognition, figuring significantly into the sequel’s plot is Borat’s daughter, Tutar. A 15-year-old on the cusp of womanhood, she goes from sleeping in a barn in her homeland to hoping to be presented as a gift to “America’s Most Famous Ladies’ Man” Vice-President Mike Pence. The objective is for Kazakhstan to earn the respect of President Trump — a kind of sexual-slavery olive branch. Of course, nothing goes as planned.
Perhaps befitting a shock-stunt comedy in which the star must appear in character as other characters — and in subsequent disguises as some of Cohen’s secondary aliases impersonate yet other characters still — the identity of the actress portraying Tutar has also been shrouded in subterfuge. In the lead-up to the film’s release, she was initially credited in Borat 2 as Irina Nowak, an actress whose lone credit on IMDB is the Polish neo-realist drama Róg Brzeskeij i Capri — a movie that was released in 1979. That is, of course, a differently aged actress named Irina Nowak who looks nothing like the younger Sagdiyev. No, this Irina Nowak eventually turned out to be a Bulgarian actress (24, according to IMDb) who gets a special shout out — “introducing Maria Bakalova” — as the credits roll on her Hollywood debut.
Perhaps most passingly familiar to English-speaking audiences as a member of the ensemble cast of the Italian TV series Gomorrah, Maria Bakalova has appeared in a number of Bulgarian features including Transgression (2018) and this year’s Last Call. (Unfortunately, a publicist for Borat 2 did not make her available for an interview and would not provide information on how the actress came to be cast.)
It’s not easy to steal scenes from Cohen, one of comedy’s most gifted physical and improvisational performers, who risked life and limb to shoot the film’s “Country Steve” sequence, during which an angry mob turned against him. (“When organizers finally stormed the stage, I rushed to a nearby getaway vehicle,” Cohen wrote in an essay for Time. “An angry crowd blocked our way and started pounding on the vehicle with their fists. Under my overalls, I was wearing a bulletproof vest, but it felt inadequate with some people toting semiautomatic weapons.”) But as Borat’s guileless, race-baiting foil and sidekick — a feral presence who provides both entree and cover for the character’s cringiest provocations — Bakalova commandeers many of the movie’s most memorable scenes. She utters lines such as “I want a man who would make a sex attack on me” to a plastic surgeon consulting to give her character breast implants. And, “Are you a man? Let me see your putka!” to a female “babysitter” to whom Borat has handed Tutar’s literal ball and chain.
Cohen, of course, is no stranger to placing unfamiliar faces at the center of the frame in his mockumentaries. In the first Borat, journeyman character actor Ken Davitian gives a full-frontal performance as TV segment producer Azamat Bagatov. And talk-show host/comedian Luenell Campbell delivers an indelible turn as the sex worker Borat weds when things go south in the film with Pamela Anderson.
Without giving away crucial plot points, the conclusion of Borat Subsequent Moviefilm leaves the door ajar for a Tutar-centric sequel. “Nice,” the character says, dressed in the kind of drab, gray gabardine suit favored by her father.
“Niiiice!” Borat corrects.
“Don’t mansplain to me,” Bakalova as Tutar deadpans.