VIKTORIA Sundance

Maya Vitkova's feature debut is strikingly assured and ambitious, up to a point.

A strikingly assured and ambitious feature debut for writer-director Maya Vitkova, at least to a point, “Viktoria” has a touch of “Garp” and “The Tin Drum,” as well as plenty of dryly absurdist Eastern European humor in its tale of a young woman whose first two decades of life are sharply divided by the fall of communism in Bulgaria. But the pic’s leisurely yet often bold and original progress abruptly reduces itself to a wearying chronicle of multi-character depression in its final third, dragging all emotional and metaphorical impact downhill with it. Ultimately disappointing results will nonetheless be of considerable interest to fest programmers; offshore commercial prospects are much less assured.

Absolutely fixated on an advertising-fueled dream of America, librarian Boryana (Irmena Chichikova) doesn’t want to bear children until she and doctor husband Ivan (Dimo Dimov) manage to flee Bulgaria — as well as her own humorless apparatchik mother (Mariana Krumova), with whom they’re forced to share a one-room Sofia apartment. But despite all folk-remedy attempts to thwart conception, Boryana becomes pregnant. Her sense of entrapment is only heightened after she gives birth to Viktoria — an immediate focus of state attention, not only because she’s curiously lacking a belly button, but also because she’s chosen as “Socialist Bulgaria Baby of the Decade.”

In the ensuing propagandic publicity blitz, the parents benefit from a clutch of perks, from their own modern apartment to the child eventually getting limo service to/from school. But this honor also means any hopes of illicit emigration are now futile. Boryana’s resentment manifests itself in an inability to produce breast milk, and sullen indifference toward both daughter and spouse. Meanwhile, red-haired Viktoria (played at age 9 by Daria Vitkova, then later on by sibling Kalina Vitkova) grows into a fabulously spoiled brat whose best friend is Comrade Zhivkov (Georgi Spasov as the real-life late head of state) — she even has a private line to his office — and whose every word or deed is fatuously applauded by party officials.

Of course, the fall of communism puts a fast end to this special treatment. While Boryana rejoices (at least briefly) in the system’s collapse, the cold air she blows toward her family grows no more temperate.

“Viktoria’s” first hundred minutes or so offer an arresting mix of satire, surrealism and ambivalently angsty drama, with the helmer in precocious full command of pacing, tone and aesthetics. But once the characters settle uneasily into the nation’s new era, their interpersonal dynamics and individual personalities turn wholly static, just when we expect them to radically evolve. This bewildering shrinkage of scale and verve carries right through the tepid fadeout.

Where Vitkova’s directorial authority initially keeps us interested in the protagonists, despite their minimal dialogue and deliberately mask-like performances (from the three generations of women, at least), they and the film now become frustratingly one-note in their collective emotional withdrawal. (Only Dimov as the father is permitted some human warmth, and he’s never allowed to be a focal point; the few peripheral figures aren’t developed at all.) Pic starts with a “based on a true story” title, so presumably the auteur is being faithful to some “semi-autobiographical” (also her term) truth. But given the script’s long gestation period, it seems odd that along the way, no one pointed out what a letdown its last laps are. Still, so much of “Viktoria” heralds such a fascinating filmic sensibility that one eagerly looks forward to whatever Vitkova does next.

Assembly is first-rate down the line, with particularly fine contributions from d.p. Krum Rodriguez’s often striking widescreen compositions (ditto use of slo-mo), editor Alexander Etimov’s succinctly evocative montages of historical news footage, and a wittily diverse range of pre-existing soundtrack choices.

Film Review: 'Viktoria'

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema — competing), Jan. 22, 2014. Running time: 155 MIN.

Production

(Bulgaria) A Viktoria Films production in co-production with Mandragora. (International sales: Viktoria Films, Sofia.) Produced by Maya Vitkova. Co-producer, Anca Puiu.

Crew

Directed, written by Maya Vitkova. Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Krum Rodriguez; editor, Alexander Etimov; production designer, Rin Yamamura; art director, Asen Bojilov; costume designer, Kristina Tomova; sound, Ivan Andreev; sound designer, Kamen Agtanasov; assistant director, Boris Taskov.

With

Irmena Chichikova, Daria Vitkova, Kalina Vitkova, Mariana Krumova, Georgi Spasov, Katerina Angelova, Dimo Dimov.

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