The playfully provocative title of Teona Strugar Mitevska’s God Exists, Her Name Is Petrunya, isn’t the only patriarchal ploy this surprising satire has up its sleeve, and the violence of patriarchy is nowhere near the only sacred status quo on its mind. Idols of all kinds are interviewed over the course of 100 breezy minutes, and while the film isn’t as theologically curious as its title sentence suggests, there’s plenty of serious spiritual exploration everywhere. What starts out as an overtly feminist film (complete with an excruciatingly loud and manic musical opening moment) always reveals obscure levels that complicate his character’s motivations in ways that could frustrate those who want more obvious and pointed criticism. While the moral of Petrunya’s story cannot be easily wrapped up in succinct proverbs, the film does what the best parables do and runs into many open questions that are sure to lead to ongoing conversation.
In the small town of Štip, Macedonia, 32-year-old Petrunya (Zorica Nusheva), unemployed and unemployed, lives with her worried parents (Violeta Shapkovska and Petar Mircevski). Her mother is desperately looking for a job, but Petrunya, endowed with a useless degree in history and an expressionless, melancholy look, seems to wallow in the outsider’s life.
It seems like a classic setup where an ugly duckling is sure to bloom into the swan it was born to. But Strugar Mitevska planned a more subtle awakening for her heroine. On the way home from her last unsuccessful interview, during which she is verbally abused and verbally abused by a misogynistic potential boss, Petrunya encounters the local church’s annual epiphany ritual, during which a priest throws a wooden crucifix into the river and eagerly shirtless Young men look for him in the water, and the winner is said to be lucky. In a split second, Petrunya dives into the water and grabs the cross, which surprises itself and upsets the city’s delicate social balance. After escaping with the relic, she finally finds herself at the local police station to interrogate her.
Strugar Mitevska and screenwriter Elma Tataragic actually recreated Petrunya’s unusual trip. In 2014, at the real epiphany event that year, a woman in Štip really caught the cross, which caused a stir. Mitevska and Tataragic expand on this seed of a story by pitting a chorus of warlike voices against one another, wrapping Petrunya’s spontaneous action in overheated noise and giving it its own different meanings. The religious establishment is confused, the brutal group of male participants is angry, the police are overwhelmed and an ambitious news reporter (Labina Mitevska) is determined to wrap the moment as a powerful middle finger for men everywhere.
While Petrunya sits quietly in the local police station, these other players circle around her, nibble at each other, but never quite manage to crack Petrunya himself. While some may argue that the film fails to trace any of the various threads in its construction, the fact that the film focuses directly on Petrunya and her stoic demeanor at the center of the hustle and bustle is one of its most subversive strengths.
God exists, her name is Petrunya, could have been a suppression of religious hypocrisy. It could have become an indictment against the violent dangers of misogyny. It could have become a crowd favorite with its fists raised and woman power. Each of these decisions could make for an exciting and justice-oriented consideration. But God exists, her name is Petrunya is a completely different animal. It aims at calm complexity over banal triumph. As the turmoil grows around her, Petrunya shrinks, gently protecting and even darkening her own inner life. Despite Nusheva’s consistently fascinating performance, it is consistently difficult to know what Petrunya really feels and wants; but that seems part of the point.
The film’s final moments even include a nod to a budding romance that frustratingly disrupts the flow of empowerment we want for Petrunya and tarnishes the truth of her desires even more. Some might say that this is a sign of the movie’s clout, but in context with the rest of the film and when compared to other, more applauding films, it’s a clever reversal of convention that provides a late-night, beguiling addition to the layered buffet of the film.
Like the character of Petrunya himself, God Exists, Her Name Is Petrunya doesn’t seem interested in his audience fully understanding his impulses. It’s a chronicle of a capricious spiritual journey that feels amazingly lifelike, complete with starts and stops, disappointments and interruptions that would make smooth lines and a steady, uninterrupted rise of the heroes so much more satisfying. The details of Petrunya’s story are as specific as they come, but the main themes of the film are analogous to any existential quest. How could we all find that stimulating horizon beyond debilitating self-doubt, that self-obsessed place that invites us to embody our innate birthright as human reflections of the divine? Answering this question is a life’s work, but God Exists, Her Name Is Petrunya suggests that we could start by calming the cacophony around us and looking deeply within.