The world — at least the Bulgarian world — is mired in depression, corruption, and misanthropy. Love doesn’t exist, even if sought on occasion. That’s the message of Ralitza Petrova’s debut feature “Godless,” a film that goes to great lengths to rub the viewer’s face in the joylessness of life in a post-Communist world where nothing has changed. While undeniably consistent in how it sticks to its downbeat vision of a drugged-out medical aide stealing ID cards of vulnerable seniors and selling them on the black market, the film’s conviction that every, and that means every, degradation must be highlighted unfortunately reveals a distressing intellectual immaturity. Locarno’s jury thought otherwise, and the Golden Leopard will accord “Godless” a modicum of visibility on the fest circuit.
According to the Wikipedia entry for the film’s location, “The city of Vratsa is picturesque” — a description that seems incongruous after seeing “Godless,” which goes out of its way to maintain a largely constricted view of the place (not just due to the Academy ratio), focusing instead on abandoned, weedy urban spaces and crumbling 1970s housing blocks. Gana (Irena Ivanova, who won the best actress prize in Locarno) is an expressionless visiting nurse making the rounds of elderly patients. In between cleaning bed sores and soiled sheets, she pilfers ID cards, which she sells to corrupt cop Pavel (Alexandr Triffonov), who passes them on to fraudsters setting up shell companies.
Gana has no inner light: she’s in a sexless relationship with mechanic and co-conspirator Aleko (Ventzislav Konstantinov), and all they have in common is a morphine addiction and their ID card scam. When sourpuss Tereza (Maria Lazarova) cottons on and threatens to tattle, Aleko goes to scare the old lady but instead kills her. Gana is sort of put out (hard to tell since she maintains a hardened, passive expression), but only when she starts chatting with choir master retiree Yoan (Ivan Nalbantov), and listens to his chorus singing religious songs, does she realize that beauty can afford a way out of miserabilism.
Petrova doesn’t miss an opportunity to highlight the sordid conditions in town. Cement walls are stained with mildew (there’s a credit for “set aging”), and close-ups of elderly residents apparently with Alzheimers emphasize their decrepitude. The open door of an apartment reveals a man getting a blow-job just as a little girl walks in; a corrupt judge (Dimitar Petkov) joins a very unappetizing orgy; and Gana engages in unsuccessful dominant-submissive sex with Pavel. The concept of better days doesn’t exist: not the distant past, referenced by an old woman who nostalgically recalls her happiness when the Nazis rolled into town, nor the Communist era, when this society was destroyed by fear and corruption.
“Godless” is clearly proclaiming that nothing has changed, and nearly thirty years after the fall of dictator Todor Zhivkov, Bulgaria’s social fabric remains in tatters. Some will admire the way Petrova refuses to let up, yet the film’s lack of nuance works against making a profound statement, and keeping Gana nearly catatonic until the very end robs the audience of any cathartic emotional response. The message is valid, despite being told many times throughout Eastern Europe in recent decades, but wallowing in unredeemed squalor with such a nonresponsive protagonist merely feels forced, and is an ineffective way of drawing attention to a despoiled legacy.
It’s odd the director chose to shoot at least partly on 35mm (transferred to digital), since color correction turns everything to an undistinguished gray, in keeping with the mood of numbed misery. The camerawork is suitably gritty and closely observational.