“God Exists, Her Name is Petrunya” – Her cross to bear [MOVIE REVIEW]
“God Exists, Her Name is Petrunya” is a cosmic joke being played by masterful writer/director Teona Strugar Mitevska. Macedonia, a country still mired in a Medieval male hierarchy with a wretchedly poor economy, relies on the Eastern Orthodox church for guidance in all things. When Church traditions collide with the legal system, it is usually the Church that prevails. When the rigid church leaders join with the corrupt legal system, what chance does an ordinary woman have?
That ordinary woman is Petrunya, 32, a zaftig, unemployed historian living with a loving father and a toxically hateful mother who constantly undermines her with comments about her weight, lack of prospects, and her single status. Petrunya has been on more job interviews than she’d care to remember. When her mother forces her to undergo one more humiliating interview with the neighbor of her aunt, Petrunya musters the courage. It’s no surprise that the boss, who runs a sewing factory, looks her up and down, denigrates her background and worse declares that he wouldn’t even want to **** her (expletive deleted). One more hit to her self-confidence rendered by an uneducated sleaze ball whose only superiority can measured by his penis.
Slowly walking home, contemplating the ruin that is her life, self-esteem at an all-time low, Petrunya comes upon the annual religious “Cross” ceremony. By the banks of the river, shirtless men await the local Orthodox High Priest to throw the ceremonial cross into the river. Diving into the waters, the first to retrieve it will have possession of the cross for the next year and the luck that comes with it. Spontaneously, Petrunya jumps in, fully clothed, and, amazingly, comes up with the cross. Witnessed by the priest, filmed by observers, this does not stop the town bully from grabbing it from her hands and declaring himself the winner. The priest, caught completely off guard, makes him give the cross back to her and she runs home, cradling it to her ample bosom.
All hell breaks loose because women are not allowed to partake in this ceremony. It’s not that there are written rules, just traditions and the fact that no woman has ever attempted to enter this contest. The High Priest is clearly in distress. The Macedonian Bishop will surely have his hide and he must find a way to retrieve the cross before the story becomes more widespread. He enlists the police to help him and they are more than happy to oblige. However, as the police chief points out, unless the priest files a report for theft of the cross, this is a church, not a police matter.
Unfortunately for the police and the church, a female TV reporter latches on to the story and she immediately sees the struggle of a woman trying to make her way in a patriarchal society, much like her own situation.
Petrunya, sits for hours in the police station, a limbo underscored by the priest’s ambivalence on how to resolve the situation. Confronted by the police chief who alternately cajoles and threatens her, asking if she understands why she is there. Replies Petrunya, “I’m a woman, not an idiot.”
Mitevska skillfully plies the waters of sexism, patriarchy, poverty, and courage resulting in a thoroughly enjoyable and thoughtful film. Her main character Petrunya is entrancing with her unapologetic personality, honed on years of abuse in a toxic environment. She will not be cowed. Petrunya, played by the marvelous Zorica Nusheva is an empathetic, in-your-face, inadvertent feminist. Nusheva navigates the seas from accidental heroine to pillar of strength in the face of odds that would have made anyone else melt. She had no agenda, she just dove into the waters on a day that up to that moment had been a low point in her life. Finding the cross was her very first “win” of any kind. It was a spontaneous act that everyone else seems to characterize as a deliberate act of sabotage to the holy order of Macedonian life. But when asked about the significance of her act and its effect on society, one passing citizen remarks, “Our people barely make enough to eat. Who cares about the cross?!” But in Mitevska’s hands, we all do.
This sleeper of a film has won numerous international awards, none more surprising than the Arab Critic’s Award for European Films. “God Exists, Her Name is Petrunya” will reel you in and keep you locked into this story of an unintentional heroine defying powerful forces. Clearly, as is pointed out in the beginning of the film, “life is not a fairy tale.” Nevertheless, we’ll all take the small wins whenever we can.
Opening Friday June 25 at the Laemmle Royal and Laemmle Virtual Cinema.
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