REVIEW: God Exists, Her Name is Petrunya (2021)
Pertrunya (Zorica Nusheva) is well educated, unemployed, and stuck in the small Macedonian town of Štip. Tired and on her way home from a bad job interview, Petrunya passes a group of men ready to participate in the throwing of the cross on Epiphany. The priest throws the cross and men dive into the river and whoever gets the cross first is blessed with fortune and prosperity. Though women do not traditionally participate, Petrunya jumps into the river and gets the cross. Based on a true story, God Exists, Her Name is Petrunya, witnesses the hours following Petrunya’s leap of faith as the public, local authorities, and the media attempt to uncover her intentions. Writer and director Teona Strugar Mitevska creates a compelling satire of real life events that honors both the personal and generational struggle of its protagonist.
Most interesting about Mitevska’s film is the acknowledgement that the scandal, while at times absurd, is symbolic of larger patriarchal attitudes and injustices. While incomparable to the systemic injustices women face, the public reaction to a woman even grasping at symbolic blessings is enough to turn this small town inside out. The rotating cast of characters – a young officer taken by Petrunya’s courage (Stefan Vujisic), a journalist looking for her big break (Labina Mitevska), the Priest (Suad Begovski), and the Chief Inspector (Simeon Moni Damevski) – all project their own meaning onto Petrunya’s actions. Throughout the day she is called courageous, a bitter spinster, a criminal, a whore, and a feminist. When the young officer admires Petrunya and reveals he wishes he had her courage, she replies, “There was no courage. I jumped without thinking.”
While the details of this particular incident are unique, Petrunya’s general sense of malaise is indicative of generational issues surrounding education, gender roles, and economic opportunity. It is hard not to see oneself in Petrunya. She studied hard, is struggling to find employment, and lives in a town that fails to truly see her. The precarity of modern life often feels like racing in a river, pushing each other aside for a chance at symbolic fortune. Mitevska never minimises Petrunya’s fear. As she is interrogated by the police, Petrunya shifts between a knowing smirk and quick, anxious breathing.
Director of Photography Virginie Saint-Martin often fixes the camera on Petrunya’s face and breath as action happens around her out of frame. During a moment when Petrunya confronts a mob of angry men, her scared face pushing through the crowd is unfortunately all too recognisable. Regardless of Petrunya’s inner confidence, the fear continually creeps in. Shifting between a police drama, coming of age, and social satire, the mix of genres and aesthetic is confusing at times. With gorgeous shots of nature, religious fervor, a mannequin floating in the river, and the cross laying on Petrunya’s bare chest, God Exists, Her Name is Petrunya is made of great moments but often too meandering to stick the landing.
It’s not so much that Petrunya seeks to be a feminist icon, but more that she had nothing to lose. This truth is honored throughout the film which resists turning into a simple feminist narrative. Mitevska creates characters that while often one dimensional, represent very real reactions women face throughout their life as their choices are constantly pathologised by society. Instead of seeking to convince her community of her power, Petrunya learns that living her truth is more important than convincing others of its value.
GOD EXISTS, HER NAME IS PETRUNYA – June 25, 2021 in Theatres and Virtual Cinemas