'Godless' ('Bezbog'): Sarajevo Review

Courtesy of Klas Film
Grime and punishment make for grimly compelling viewing.

Debutante director Ralitza Petrova’s prize-winning, Toronto-bound thriller exposes the rotten state of her native Bulgaria.

A bracingly bleak blast of downbeat urban realism, director Ralitza Petrova’s debut feature seems designed to prove that contemporary Bulgarian cinema can rival even neighboring Romania in the post-Soviet glumcore league. But Godless has more lofty intentions than mere misery porn, its stark quasi-thriller plot threaded with quiet moments of philosophy and visual poetry. At times this noir-ish depiction of impoverished small-town brutality feels like an Eastern European cousin of Winter’s Bone.

A Bulgaria-Denmark-France co-production, Godless is grounded in compellingly authentic performances by a mostly non-professional cast. Sullen and impassive, Irena Ivanova makes an unlikely female lead, but her agreeably minimal performance recently earned her the best actress prizes at both Sarajevo and Locarno festivals, while the film itself won the latter’s main Golden Leopard statuette. Further festival bookings are assured, starting with a North American premiere at TIFF next month, with specialist theatrical interest possible.

Shot in Vratsa, a small mountain city north of the Bulgarian capital Sofia, Godless begins with fragmentary glimpses of a murder on a remote country road, though both victim and killers are barely seen onscreen. Back in town, social care worker Gana (Ivanova) is making house calls on senior citizens in crumbling high-rise apartment blocks, stealing their ID cards to sell on to gangsters for use in fraud. Intermittently zoned out on stolen morphine, Gana lives a life of quiet desperation. “I’m fed up of not having sex,” she tells her deadbeat mechanic boyfriend Aleko (Ventzislav Konstantinov). “I’m fed up of getting high.”

Stuck in a joyless cycle of drugs and drudgery, petty crime and festering family secrets, Gana inhabits a purgatorial realm where judges, police and mobsters all share the same amoral swamp, from grim sex orgies to routine murder cover-ups. But she finally rediscovers her dormant conscience after becoming implicated in the death of an old woman, and even senses a faint chance at redemption after her spirit is unexpectedly stirred by the amateur religious choir conducted by another of her patients, Yoan (Ivan Nalbantov).

A former dissident prisoner during the old Communist dictatorship, Yoan is steadfast in his resistance to Bulgaria’s equally corrupt new rulers, prompting Gana to share her more personal stories of abuse under the old regime. But their fragile alliance is pitted against a brutal array of obstacles, not least their own fatal flaws and treacherous friends. Nobody comes out of this story with clean hands.

Shot with chilly rigor in the 4:3 Academy ratio, Godless is a purposely austere viewing experience. But it also is visually inventive, with cinematographers Krum Rodriguez and Chayse Irvin using slow focus pulls to artfully blur character’s faces, and punctuating hand-held shots of gritty urban squalor with majestic 35mm vistas of snow-capped mountain peaks. These small aesthetic choices pay dividends over the long haul, elevating Petrova’s fatalistic vision from cheap holiday in other people’s misery to more considered meditation on the universal human hunger for faith, hope and beauty.

That said, Godless is obstinately drab, relentlessly pessimistic, opaque in its conclusions and definitely not an ideal first-date movie. The title is not some kind of religious statement, it transpires, but the local nickname for a mountain with a cruel reputation for claiming human lives. A cryptic coda, set high on its snowy slopes, seems to hint that some kind of karmic justice exists even in a godless universe. This is an oddly tangential finale but one which, like most of Petrova’s striking debut, defies expectations.

Venue: Sarajevo Film Festival
Production companies: Klas Film, Snowglobe, Alcatraz Films, Film Factory
Cast: Irena Ivanova, Ivan Nalbantov, Ventzislav Konstantinov, Alexandr Triffonov
Director-screenwriter: Ralitza Petrova
Producer: Rossitsa Valkanova
Director of photography: Krum Rodriguez, Chayse Irvin
Editors: Donka Ivanova, Ralitza Petrova
Sales: Heretic Outreach, Greece

Not rated, 103 minutes