An anonymous youngish woman wearing a dress stands alone in a large empty swimming pool perfectly situated in the center of the extra-wide 2.35:1 cinematic frame. Her silent and unmoving visage is a stark contrast to the aggressive heavy metal music playing through the lengthy shot. Perhaps the music indicates the cloud of oppressive societal expectations surrounding her; perhaps it reveals her angry interiority at such expectations. This opening scene from filmmaker Teona Strugar Mitevska’s religiously-attuned satire God Exists, Her Name is Petruyna gives us a sensory foretaste of what is to come: we will watch and hear this lone woman stand up to the powers and principalities of her contemporary Macedonian context: the spirit of patriarchy.
On January 19, Macedonia and other Eastern European nations celebrate the Christian feast of Epiphany with a certain tradition: the local Orthodox priest throws a wooden cross into the river and the local men dive in to retrieve it. Whoever gets the cross is believed to receive blessing and good fortune. The film’s narrative was inspired by actual events: in 2014, a woman in Štip in Macedonia dove into the water and retrieved the cross before any of the men, causing an outrage in both the local population and with the religious authorities, as woman are not allowed to participate in the event. God Exists, Her Name is Petruyna follows these narrative beats precisely, with the eponymous Petruyna (newcomer Zorica Nusheva) as the cross-catching woman in question. Petruyna is 32, single, unemployed, and living at home with her elderly parents. She appears to be listless and without much ambition; her mother, Vaska (Violeta Sapkovska), is overbearing and unkind, driving Petruyna into deeper self-loathing. After a failed job interview at a local textile factory where the disgusting manager brazenly sexually harasses her, Petruyna happens upon the Orthodox event. You know what happens next—the priest is confused, the crowd of men are angry, and the police are called in to pursue the supposed “thief” Petruyna after she retrieves the cross.
It feels simplistic to label God Exists, Her Name is Petruyna as a “feminist film” in the vein of similar recent #MeToo movies (e.g., The Assistant, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, Promising Young Woman). But this is a feminist film, both within the diegesis of the film world and behind the camera. The film crew is primarily made up of women: Teona Strugar Mitevska as director and writer, Elma Tataragic as co-writer, Virginie Saint-Martin as cinematographer, Kirijana Nikoloska on casting, Labina Mitevska as a producer, and Marie-Hélène Dozo as editor (Dozo is also the editor for every one of the Dardenne brothers’ major films since La Promesse). The film draws strong contrasts between the resilient defiance of Petruyna and the ideologies which surround her in the form of male-dominated institutions, namely religion and the police. A parallel narrative is also on display through a female journalist, Slavica (Labina Mitevska), who tries desperately to share Petruyna’s story with the world, perhaps in order to help them see the injustice on display. But for many of Slavica’s audience (as well as the film’s audience), they simply don’t know what the fuss is all about with this backwards religious tradition. Is this really a police matter? Is it even a matter of church orthodoxy or doctrine? Has Petruyna actually done anything legally or theologically wrong, or has she simply upset the expectations of a bunch of men? As Petruyna tells a portly old prosecutor trying to intimidate her, “I’m a woman, not an idiot.” Such moments sadly feel entirely too familiar. For being set within a distinctive Macedonian culture, many of the film’s conversations and conflicts would be recognizable within any other European or North American context.
The formal decisions—particularly the cinematography, the editing, and the powerful performance from Zorica Nusheva—are generally exceptional, but the story and themes comprising God Exists, Her Name is Petruyna ultimately stretch too thin. The film feels much longer than its 100 minute runtime. The entire second half of the film takes place at the police station, which mostly consists of Petruyna sitting around silently waiting while men question her or scream horrible things at her. Indeed, like similar recent feminist films, every man in this movie is a disgusting misogynistic creep or a weak pushover who doesn’t truly stand up to such misogyny. By painting in such broad brushstrokes and stereotypes, such satire forgoes both nuance and engagement. Moreover, without spoiling the ending, I can say that the resolution to Petruyna’s problems may unwittingly perpetuate the very same patriarchy that the film decries—Petruyna is “saved” not by God or her self-worth, but in the wan romantic affections of a man (a cop, no less). Despite its title, the film gives little attention to feminist theological understandings—the God of this film-world is essentially absent. The potential interesting queries about the significance of women within religion and politics are left almost entirely unexplored; the film chooses the pseudo-romantic over and against sociopolitical liberation. By the film’s conclusion, it’s run of out of steam in both its ideas and narrative progression; there is nowhere else for Petruyna to go besides back into the same world where she began. Nevertheless, God Exists, Her Name is Petruyna is an ambitious and provocative film which demonstrates that the spirit of patriarchy still needs to be exorcised.
IMDB Listing: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt8054608/