By Harris Dang
Teona Strugar Mitevska‘s “God Exists, Her Name Is Petrunya” (2019) is an enjoyable comedy/drama about a woman who fights the odds, involving the patriarchy, religion and the authorities; all because of a ridiculous premise that is so unbelievable, that it must’ve been true. And indeed, it is.
The film follows Petrunya (Zorica Nusheva), a History graduate who is struggling to find employment due to the abhorrent sexist behaviour from people she associates with in the constant job interviews she trudges through. On the way home from an interview, she spots an old ritual taking place. Every January, the local priest throws an ornate wooden cross into the river and hundreds of men dive after it.
Good fortune and prosperity are guaranteed to the man who retrieves it. Petrunya dives into the water on a whim and manages to grab the cross before the others. Her male competitors are furious – how dare an outsider (let alone, a woman) take part in their ritual? All hell breaks loose, but Petrunya holds her ground and isn’t willing to go out with her victory without a fight.
One of the reasons it succeeds so well is because of Strugar Mitevska’s assured direction. Both spoofing the ridiculous responses to Petrunya’s actions and convincingly staging the drama in the story, Mitevska is able to achieve the perfect balance between self-awareness (in terms of the premise) and its seriousness (in terms of portraying the stakes of the story); which makes the tone shifts from dry comedy to stern drama a lot smoother and more palatable.
Special mention must go to the cinematography by Virginia Saint-Martin; which compliments the drama and especially the comedy by shrewdly using techniques that add urgency in the most amusingly inappropriate moments eg. when the men say the most ridiculous comments about Petrunya as the Devil.
Another reason why the film succeeds is Strugar Mitevska’s portrayal of the impact that Petrunya has had in her world, through the character of Slavica (Labina Mitevska, actress/producer and the director’s sister), a reporter who is suddenly inspired, after suffering through the many fights caused by the men in her life (e.g. Her cameraman and her off-screen husband).
Starting off as a mere hindrance to Petrunya (and coming off like the spitting image of Nicole Kidman in Gus Van Sant‘s “To Die For” ), the more she becomes attuned into her story, the more engaged Slavica becomes, which not only ends with an ambiguous, yet still progressive character arc conclusion, but her character also points out holes in the arguments against Petrunya with good observational humour. The film also succeeds in showing generation gaps as to how women act, like the contrast between Petrunya and her mother who cannot understand why her daughter keeps trying to break the mold.
But the best reason the film works as great as it does is due to the lead performance by Zorica Nusheva, who makes her feature film debut, after her extensive experience in theatre. Her nuanced turn as the long-suffering yet resiliently headstrong Petrunya speaks volumes, as she convincingly conveys her sorrow in terms of her hardships, her fleeting moments of joy and especially her anger at the world; sometimes all within a single stare.
The film may not explore its themes of political intrigue and sexual politics as extensively as it should (since the film is set in a limited time-frame) and the ending can be seen as a bit abrupt for some but in the end, “God Exists, Her Name Is Petrunya” is a film that does more than enough to succeed.