Watching a woman take control of her destiny after being told she’s worthless can make for one of cinema’s more empowering moments, but how satisfying is it really when her struggle for self-esteem takes a back seat to the happiness of being validated by a handsome man? “God Exists, Her Name is Petrunya” positions itself as a feminist cry against a patriarchal Macedonia in the grips of bullying machismo and hidebound religion, yet the genial rushed ending undercuts its gender-equality thrust by presenting Petrunya’s emotional savior as a mustachioed guy in uniform.
Teona Strugar Mitevska (“I Am from Titov Veles”) delivers her most focused film to date, with a concentrated plot mined — at times over-mined — for opportunities reinforcing the ways ignorant tradition traps women in subservient roles, yet her finale panders to audiences wanting their bitter draft to finish with a sweetened aftertaste. The film undoubtedly has popular appeal and could play well in indie European markets.
Thirty-two-year-old Petrunya (Zorica Nusheva) has a degree in history and no work experience beyond waitressing. Still living with parents Vaska (Violeta Shapkovska) and Stojan (Petar Mircevski) on the outskirts of Štip, she’s unmotivated and pessimistic about employment opportunities, not least because her overbearing mother keeps saying she’s fat and old. Borrowing an unflattering, outdated dress to be interviewed for a secretarial position at a clothes factory, Petrunya is humiliated and harassed by the noxious owner and leaves with her tattered self-esteem shredded even further.
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Heading home, she spies the annual riverside Epiphany ritual in which men dive into the water to retrieve a wooden cross tossed in by Father Kosta (Suad Begovski). On impulse she jumps in, finds the cross, and heads home excoriated by the crowds who scream abuse, saying a woman isn’t allowed to participate.
A YouTube post of the event draws the interest of brittle newshound Slavica Janeva (the director’s sister, producer, and regular collaborator Labina Mitevska), whose televised report prompts Vaska to call her daughter a monster for defying tradition. Then the cops turn up and haul her in, insisting she give up the cross.
All the browbeating has the opposite effect: Petrunya becomes more convinced of her rights to keep the cross, and with each passing hour, her confidence grows even as a lynch mob of angry men forms outside. Journalist Slavica milks the story as much as possible, more interested in the sensational elements than with any genuine sense of female solidarity, which leaves only junior cop Darko (Stefan Vujisič) to extend a sincere hand of admiration for her courage to hold fast.
Mitevska generally succeeds in finding the right tone, balancing serious elements with satirical humor (her last film, “When the Day Had No Name,” is significantly darker). Themes are approached in a straightforward manner: Patriarchy, which punishes women for daring to step out of line; Religion, which cowardly condones virulent misogyny; and Tradition, which blindly conforms to the strictures imposed by the first two.
The power of the rabid mob, hungry to punish Petrunya, is a constant unresolved threat which Mitevska and co-writer Elma Tataragić allow rather incongruously to disappear just around the same time they weaken their admirable feminist message by racing the ending and reducing Petrunya to a love-starved woman thrilled to have a supportive man say, “We’ll stay in touch.” Before then, Petrunya’s increasing sense of stalwart resistance, as her momentary impulse turns into a conduit for principled defiance, is a pleasure to behold.
Much of that success is due to Zorica Nusheva’s excellent performance and the way her character comes into her own as a strong-willed woman asserting her self-worth while the people around her, of both sexes, try to “put her in her place.” She’s never a wallflower, but when first seen, underneath the bed covers, the low expectations of others have trapped her into inaction. Less successfully drawn is Slavica, almost a camp figure tottering slightly in her heels, cynically grasping at the superficialities of Petrunya’s story without caring about its meaning. It’s likely this is the script’s point, but the character is over-weighted with satire and doesn’t balance well with Petrunya’s grounded defiance.
The film’s visual style is unmistakably Balkan, playing on clean, artfully composed shots carrying a hint of irony occasionally mixed with nervous camerawork, especially in scenes with the threatening mob of testosterone-charged men. Mitevska and her DP Virginia Saint-Martin (who also shot “I Am from Titov Veles”) know how to find dry humor in color and pattern juxtapositions, though the excellent opening scene of Petrunya on a blue-painted field, accompanied by an amusingly foul-mouthed punk rock song, has no corresponding moment and feels like a detached teaser.