Lux Prize Spotlight | A Modern Hero is Born in God Exists, Her Name is Petrunya

In partnership with the Cork Film Festival, the European Parliament is providing free screenings of three movies competing for the Lux Prize. This is an award given out by the latter body to help significant European films find an audience beyond their national market. Each week, in the run-up to the festival, Stephen Porzio will spotlight one of the competing titles. The final entry is Macedonian comedy-drama God Exists, Her Name is Petrunya.

No movie in recent memory has been a sharper dissection of the double standards that exist between men and women than Macedonian comedy-drama God Exists, Her Name is Petrunya.

Using a true-life event as its jumping off point, the film revolves around the title character (comic stage performer Zorica Nusheva in her screen debut), a 30-something woman living at home with her parents in a rundown suburb of Stip, Macedonia. Petrunya is intelligent – a straight-A student throughout college, she has a university degree in history. She’s also full of personality, as evident by her sparky interactions with her family and friends. However, by the time we meet her, she’s clearly in a rut. With a facial expression mostly pitched somewhere between sadness and anger and her deadpan delivery, it’s as if the joy has been snuffed out of her life.

Set entirely over a day, from the moment the movie begins we start to understand why Petrunya is in this emotional state. It opens with our hero standing alone in an abandoned rundown swimming pool, something which may have once represented prosperity and wealth but now stands for the opposite. The starkness of Petrunya’s town reinforces this, as does the fact that despite her degree the woman has not been able to find employment in her field.

As one character notes: “It’s 2018 but it still feels like the dark ages in Macedonia,” a statement with a few other meanings. The Orthodox Christian Church still maintains a lot of power in Stip, running various religious events which exclude women. This patriarchal dominance seems to have infected the town, something first evident when Petrunya goes for a job interview. Applying to either be a secretary or a seamstress (which as her mother hints is all she can expect), she is degraded as the interviewer makes several lewd comments. Then walking home, she is cat-called by a group of men driving past her.

Emotionally worn down, she witnesses the beginning of the annual Epiphany Cross Dive, a real religious ceremony where a parish priest throws a cross into an icy river. Men then plunge into the water to fight for the object. The person who retrieves it is said to have good luck for the year. In the spur of the moment, believing she deserves some fortune in her life, Petrunya dives in too and manages to retrieve the item. As men chase her for the cross and confused religious officials look on, Petrunya goes briefly on the run – before getting snagged by the police and brought in for questioning.

It’s from here co-writer-director Teona Strugar Mitevska breaks from reality – in 2014, the real-life person was forced to give back the cross immediately – using the bottled police station setting as a way for Petrunya to give voice to the voiceless and fight the system. While it looks like the male policemen and church members are interrogating the lead character, in this satire it’s vice-versa.

Pretty much every male character, aside from Petrunya’s supportive father (Petar Mircevski) and the one kind cop (Stefan Vujisic), is horrendously stubborn. They are men helping to enforce a patriarchal system which does not hold up under any scrutiny. When asked by Petrunya and other strong female character Slavica (the director’s sister Labina Mitevska), a journalist covering the scandal, why women can’t compete in the ritual with the supposed good luck of the cross going just to men, all the parish priest (Suad Begovski) can muster is variations on: ‘It’s tradition.’

We see his and the Church’s influence over the state in how the police respond to the incident. Knowing they can’t arrest Petrunya because the cross was not stolen but won fair and square, the priest still demands the cops force the woman to hand it back – the latter subjecting her to hours of interrogations to make that happen. The resulting scenes – pitting the now fiercely righteous Petrunya against increasingly frustrated male cops – lead to the movie’s best comedy but also some quietly disturbing moments. One cop tells the lead character: “I have a daughter. She’s nine. She’s polite, well-mannered and pretty. But if I see her behaving like you when she’s older, I’ll break each and every bone in her body.”

Just as this policeman is willing to ignore the moral code of his job in the pursuit of silencing ‘mad women,’ the angry male competitors in the religious contest are very fast to disregard the teachings they claim to be devoted to, hounding Petrunya from outside the police station with every gendered insult under the sun and at one point almost physically assaulting her. Another quieter example of this kind of male-female double standard is when Slavica is screamed at over the phone by her husband for not picking up their kid from school. Even though it was her partner’s turn to do it, she somehow winds up with the blame because she continued doing her job over getting the child.

God Exists, Her Name is Petrunya with its easy-to-root for protagonist and comedic premise is the type of accessible foreign language film with the potential to be a break-out success across the world. Yet, within its mainstream trappings is a heady cocktail of sharp examinations on gender inequality in contemporary society, ones with the power to provoke real change. Only in 2019, a woman competing in Macedonia for the Epiphany Cross Dive won and was allowed to keep the object. In a year where Iron Man and Spider-Man have dominated the box-office, the character of Petrunya is an example of that axiom ‘real heroes don’t wear capes.’

God Exists, Her Name is Petrunya will be shown on Tuesday, November 12 in the Gate Cinema. For more information, see here.

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