Savina Petkova on Teona Strugar Mitevska’s ‘God Exists, Her Name is Petrunija‘ (2019)
Tradition versus modernity, that never-ending battle, is the central theme of Teona Strugar Mitevska’s new feature that premiered as part of the 69th Berlinale’s Competition. God Exists, Her Name is Petrunija / Gospod postoi, imeto i’ e Petrunija is visually exquisite, compelling in its storytelling, and truthful to the hardships of being a strong woman in a small Balkan town.
In an annual Christian Orthodox ritual, men dive into an ice-cold river in order to retrieve a wooden cross. It is said to grant them a year of happiness and prosperity. The keyword here is “men”. Outrage emerges when thirty-something-year-old Petrunija (an impeccable Zorica Nusheva) catches the cross, over of all the macho men. She is then, inadvertently, put in a criminal position, its absurdity resonating in both the legal system and the church, the two-building poles of civilisation. The events that unfold in the small town of Štip — the textile production centre of Macedonia – compose a microcosm of misogyny and its counter-reactions, giving flesh and blood to the abstract notion of personal struggle against rigid systems.
In the beginning of the film, we learn a lot about Petrunija, as her family portrait paints her in the middle of a devouring mother and a sick, too silent father. Despite the daughter being twice the size of her mother, Vaska (Violeta Sapkovska), the grumpy, never-satisfied old lady manages to dictate her daughter’s life when arranging a job interview and tailing Petrunija on the way there, so that she may nag her with advice – “Tell them you’re 25!” The toxic mother-daughter relationship defines Vaska as a retrograde figure of tradition, sterile and belaboured by “what would the people think?”, and a hidden egoism that has shaped Petrunija as independent and to fiercely defend her autonomy. After being harassed and humiliated at the same job interview (“You probably misunderstood him”, her mother says when the woman tells her she was called “unfuckable” by the boss in question), Petrunija walks around in the freezing cold with a flower-patterned dress, clutching a mannequin torso she took from her friend’s clothes shop. The presence of clothing racks and mannequins is a recurring motif to juxtapose Petrunija’s “non-model” looks.
The cross ritual takes place on a bridge overlooking the river, where big crowds celebrate the thrill of people diving into ice-cold water rather than the particular sanctity of the ritual. Phone cameras are as eager in waiting as the cocky young men out prove their virility by engaging in the spectacle. Petrunija is already separated from the crowds as she observes the wrestling and water splashing from under the bridge, a symbol of her self-made shield from the world. The camera identifies with her look to behold the absurdity of dead dogma, emptied of its meaning. In the moment she dives in for the cross, she has already started her revolution.
Alas, no revolution goes unpunished. As soon as she emerges from the tide with the cross held high in the sky, the people’s shock turns to whispers, and bewildered young men forcefully take it from her — “This is not yours to hold.” The watchful eye of a possessive tradition cannot bear the sight of its own usurping, and the mass of Stip’s citizens turn vile against Petrunija. Her mother is also ruthless, calling her “a monster”, “disgrace”, “bitch”, shaming her rebellious act that for Petrunija means nothing more than the desire to be happy and prosperous in a world that has unjustly denied her that. The dissolution of family reaches a boiling point when Vaska turns out to be the one that turned in her own daughter to the police.
The second part of the film is entirely set in the local police precinct where the “good cop, bad cop” routine is played again and again, even as both the police chief and the priest know that there is no law to find her guilty of transgressing. Yet, the people’s moral compass seems to prove reason enough, as both the police and the church suffer from the crowd’s demands of “purity”. These micro-level contradictions mirror the larger scale confusion that penetrates political and social affairs, world-wide. It is not a far-fetched thought to find the same contradictions between secular law and religious dogma in ongoing religious conflicts across the world. Overwhelmingly confused, the police officers and the priest show in turn condescending behaviour and aggressive advances, painting a truly gruesome face of violent patriarchy – a stagnated, stubborn monster that is nothing less than destructive to women’s claim for equality.
Placing the question of women’s agency in the religious sphere, God Exists… makes a bold statement about the small town mentality that still dominates personal struggles. While some may think feminism is blossoming as first-world capitals are marching under the drum of gender equality, Teona Strugar-Mitevska puts “small” struggles under the microscope of her lens – a necessary, practical feminism for the everyday small-town woman and not just the high-flying university student or actress. If her fellow characters belong in the retrograde province, Petrunija’s perseverance and quiet anger turns her into a symbol of a necessary revolution.
After tiresome hours spent in custody, threatened by a fearful gang of machos that feel like she has stolen the cross from them, and the sneaky plans of the government officials to steal the cross from her, Petrunija is cheerful enough to share her own transformation. “You know the story of the sheep and the wolf?”, she asks the chief, “Well, I think I just became the wolf”. The scary woman, the headstrong woman, the hated woman, misunderstood by all but a fellow feisty journalist (Labina Mitevska), is championed in this feminist satire that burns slowly on the verge of the absurd. The lightness with which Petrunija outsmarts and laughs off the insults and accusations is the thin line that enables us to talk about feminism as an empowering way to deal with solidified beliefs that rely on nothing else than its timespan.
Screened as part of the 69th Berlin International Film Festival
Savina Petkova is a regular contributor for Electric Ghost Magazine. She also contributes to MUBI Notebook, Photogénie, and Girls on Tops.