One simple, spontaneous act of rebellion sends a small Macedonian town into an ethical meltdown in Teona Strugar Mitevska’s lowkey comic drama God Exists, Her Name is Petrunija. Tradition is disrupted when layabout history enthusiast Petrunija comes away from a failed job interview and decides to take the plunge into the town’s river. A regional Christian ritual, locals scramble to be first to catch a wooden cross thrown by their congregation’s priest into the water – the winner blessed with good luck for the coming year. However, the tradition (eagerly watched over by the town) is reserved for men only. So when Petrunija emerges triumphant from the ice cold water, gleefully holding the cross aloft, the town must re-assess the patriarchal institutions that govern their lives.
The reason that God Exists is so effective, and may well end up winning an award or two by the end of the Berlinale, is the way it uses a localised event to (literally) interrogate it’s characters about more universal issues. Gender politics and outdated traditions are examined through the lens of Petrunija who, as displayed by the film’s opening shot, is fed up with the expectations others have about who she should be. We are introduced to her standing in an empty swimming pool accompanied by heavy metal – without knowing how or why, Petrunija is likely to cause some trouble.
And indeed, she does. After her act of transgression, a (wo)manhunt is undertaken to find Petrunija and the ‘stolen’ cross. The rest of the film turns into an Assault on Precinct 13-esque, David and Goliath tale as the men of the town rail against the so-called scandal. Zorica Nusheva is an incredibly watchable presence as the eponymous lead, managing to tread the line between the film’s comic and dramatic tones assuredly. She especially shines in the film’s many interrogation scenes where Petrunija’s stillness wields power over the male characters.
Mitevska’s thoughtful composition aids the satire in subtle ways. The frame is often split up into sections by walls and windows compartmentalising the clashing viewpoints of the characters. In many of the mid-shots, space is left above the character’s heads, acknowledging the importance of religion to these communities, whilst also scrutinising their traditional beliefs. It’s frequently implied that Petrunija’s activism is similar to that of Christ – initially rejected by the wider community, she manages to convert disciples to her cause before rising above the issue altogether.
The film’s screenplay, co-written by Mitevska and Elma Tataragic, is comically inflected, hoping to play to as broad an audience as possible whilst simultaneously being a piercing analysis of Macedonian society. Most of the male characters are shown as apathetic to change because of their inherent privilege – routinely taking phone calls as women are attempting to talk to them. They even seem apathetic towards their priest, yelling at him to speed up the ceremony so they can get after the cross. The police department and the Church are shown to be in cahoots, not exactly offended by Petrunija’s provocation, but more concerned with how best to come out of the uproar. Body parts also play a crucial role, tailor’s dummies a visual reminder of Petrunija’s (lack of) agency over how people see and interact with her body. Towards the start of the film Petrunija expresses her love of being naked as it makes her feel free, something she’s forced to hide whilst the men walk around the town in their trunks for the ritual.
God Exists is certainly a crowd-pleaser. Many belly laughs were illicited out of the audience I saw it with, although I must say, I didn’t find it laugh-out-loud funny. I was more enthused by the subtly affecting way it delivers its broader sociological message. A meditative satire for the post-Me Too age.
Director: Teona Strugar Mitevska
Writers: Teona Strugar Mitevska, Elma Tataragic
Starring: Zorica Nusheva, Labina Mitevska, Simeon Moni Damevski