Directed by Maya Vitkova
Opens April 29
Search for Viktoria online, and you’re more likely to find people talking about Victoria—a German film about a Spanish girl and a bank robbery in Berlin. Viktoria, on the other hand, is a Bulgarian movie about Bulgarian women having great difficulty leaving Bulgaria. When one characters manages to run away, she’s carrying a globe in her backpack, and gets as far as her grandmother’s apartment in town. The borders of Europe may be more open these days—depending on who you are—but it’s still a matter of some celebration that Viktoria screened at Sundance in 2014, the first Bulgarian movie to make it to that specific West.
Whether the movie itself is a matter of celebration is debatable. First-time director Maya Vitkova also wrote and produced the feature, and though she worked with both an editor (Alexander Etimov) and a DP (Krum Rodriguez), Viktoria can feel like a one-woman project in the extreme. Many scenes aren’t only very long but shot in slow motion, and peopled with characters ranging from extremely reticent to factually mute, played by actors who seem to have been instructed to give nothing away. This makes for a frustrating two-and-half-hours, even given the more fantastic sequences: downpours of milk, flowerings of blood, and the gentle bobbing of a fetus who doesn’t yet know that she is dreaded, rather than desired.
That baby’s mother is Boryana (Irmena Chichikova), a beautiful, laconic young woman who yearns, in 1979, to leave the People’s Republic of Bulgaria (and the apartment she shares with her patriot mother), just as much as her husband wants a child. Because a baby would complicate her escape, Boryana attempts to prevent conception, but the husband gets his way—except when the child, Viktoria (Daria Vitkova), is born, she lacks a belly button. Clear enough—Viktoria’s mother really doesn’t want her. However, since Viktoria was born on a national holiday, the Party does. The little girl makes an excellent living symbol of socialism, even if she gets absurdly spoiled in the process. But the film’s absurdist promise fails to develop. After the repressive communist state is replaced, in 1990, by the parliamentary Republic of Bulgaria, the teenage Viktoria (Kalina Vitkova) is just another lonely girl with a distant mother and a compulsion to travel, to get away from the bleakness and resentment of it all. In another movie, she might have been driven to a life of crime in a capital of Europe, but in Vitkova’s first attempt, it’s enough of an accomplishment to break away from home.