'God Exists, Her Name Is Petrunya': Film Review | Berlin 2019

God Exists, Her Name Is Petrunija Still 1 - Berlin International Film Festival- Publicity-H 2019
Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival
Religious-themed satire is unlikely to gain many converts.

Zorica Nusheva stars in Macedonian writer-director Teona Strugar Mitevska's drama, which is contending for the Golden Bear.

A sad-sack 32-year-old belatedly comes into her own via bizarre circumstances in the awkwardly titled God Exists, Her Name Is Petrunya (Gospod postoi, imeto i’ e Petrunija), the ambitious but disappointing fifth feature from Macedonian writer-director Teona Strugar Mitevska.

Generously granted a high-profile main competition slot at the Berlinale — where Strugar Mitevska's previous outing When the Day Had No Name premiered in the Panorama two years ago — this heavy-handed indictment of patriarchal stupidity seems unlikely to emulate last year's 1-2 for Central/Eastern European female filmmakers, although newcomer Zorica Nusheva may enter the best actress reckoning for her powerhouse central turn.

Strugar Mitevska has built enough of a reputation since her 2004 debut How I Killed a Saint to ensure further festival bookings for this Macedonia-Belgium-Slovenia-Croatia-France co-production; distribution-wise, it may struggle to penetrate the borders of the former Yugoslavia.

The starting point for Strugar Mitevska's screenplay, co-written with Elma Tataragic, is a real-life incident which occurred in the small city of Stip half a decade ago. To commemorate the baptism of Jesus, ceremonies are held on Epiphany Day across Macedonia each January in which an Orthodox priest hurls a wooden crucifix into the icy waters of a river. Local youths (traditionally men only) then vie to be the first to grab it and claim a blessing and usually some kind of prize. In 2014, a woman was the "winner," and a considerable melee ensued.

In Strugar Mitevska and Tataragic's fanciful retelling of the episode, the cross-grabber is dowdy history graduate Petrunya (Nusheva), who lives at home with her nagging mother Vaska (Violeta Shapkovska) and ineffectual father Stoyan (Petar Mircevski). Unemployed, unhappy and very much in a rut, Petrunya jumps into the river for the crucifix more or less on a whim after a particularly humiliating job interview with a sleazy, patronizing potential boss. In the resulting chaos (crucial moments of which are annoyingly elided by Marie-Helene Dozo's editing), Petrunya makes off with her "prize," but is soon tracked down by the cops, church officials and a sensation-hungry media represented by TV reporter Slavica (Labina Mitevska, the director's sister, who is also the main producer).

Melodramatic shenanigans ensue, including a second half set in a police station during which God Exists becomes increasingly (and claustrophobically) theatrical. The boss cops are boorish and threatening, the black-garbed priest is untrustworthy and hypocritical — the nature of the relationship between these two authorities never comes into proper focus. A band of local thugs, including the snarling, tattooed skinhead who claims to be the official "winner," suddenly materializes to amp up the jeopardy; only a sensitive young officer, Darko (Stefan Vujisic) offers Petrunya anything like a friendly face.

But the latter comes into her own without much external assistance; more intelligent and articulate than those around her, she's been hibernating in a downtrodden victim state for years but seizes this one chance for self-assertion and self-realization with all of the vigor and tenacity with which she impulsively leapt for that crucifix. That said, it's unfortunate that Petrunya should be the only three-dimension character on view, sharing the screen with a gallery of relatively crude caricatures in a film unconvincing in its wider sweep and smaller details alike. Typical of Mitevska's approach is Slavica's TV interview with Petrunya's parents, conducted in an underlit parlor where there faces are steeped in shadow (a poor advertisement for cinematographer Virginie Saint Martin's craft).

There's no mistaking the earnest anger which motivates her assault on the sexist "dark ages" values still to be found in many Macedonian provincial areas, but expressing it in such clunky terms does no service to the cause. They even have the gratingly shrill Slavica spell this theme out direct to camera in the closing stages, just in case anyone out there had somehow missed their gist.

Production company: Sisters and Brother Mitevski
Cast: Zorica Nusheva, Labina Mitevska, Simeon Moni Damevski, Suad Begovski, Violeta Shapkovska
Director: Teona Strugar Mitevska
Screenwriters: Elma Tataragic, Teona Strugar Mitevska
Producer: Labina Mitevska
Cinematographer: Virginie Saint Martin
Production designer: Vuk Mitevski
Costume designer: Monika Lorber
Editor: Marie-Helene Dozo
Composer: Olivier Samouillan
Casting director: Kirijana A. Nikolovska
Venue: Berlin Internatio al Film Festival (Competition)
Sales: Pyramide International, Paris

In Macedonian
100 minutes