An impulsive act of rebellion leads to a religious crisis in Teona Strugar Mitevska’s timely and compact drama God Exists, Her Name is Petrunya. Produced in North Macedonia in 2019, it boldly tackles the heavy influence of religion in that country and how it travels hand in hand with harsh patriarchal forces.
Petrunya (Zorica Nusheva) is a 32 year-old woman who lives at home in a small Macedonian town. While she has a degree in history, she is – like many younger Macedonians – unemployed. Ridiculed on the street for her weight, and sexually harassed at job interviews, she is at her lowest ebb. At a local religious festival, where young men dive into the freezing river to retrieve a wooden crucifix, Petrunya spontaneously dives in, grabs the crucifix, and up-ends generations of religious tradition in the process.
There is a great performance by Zorica Nusheva at the centre of Petrunya. She displays a strength that underlies her miserable circumstances, and quietly burns beneath a constant sense of defeat. Once Petrunya has taken the crucifix it is not long before the local police are at her front door, and much of the film’s remainder is occupied by her stay and interrogation at the local constabulary. Has a law been broken? Is she under arrest? Did she have the right to dive for the cross, or is it legally a festival that may freely exclude women from the process? With such a swarm of argument and contention around her, it is important for Petrunya‘s success that the film has the strongest possible lead – and Nusheva absolutely excels in her role.
Scenes between Petrunya and the local police chief (Simeon Moni Damevski), and the enraged local priest Father Kosta (Suad Begovski), are particularly strong with a tight focus and well-directed emotion. While numerous interrelated social issues are up for debate – the toxic masculinity of Macedonian culture, the dominance of religion, youth unemployment – Mitevska’s direction keeps things personal and intimate. Damevski’s frustrated police chief expresses a full range of responses to the situation – both positive and negative – and transforms what could be a simple antagonist into an effective character in his own right.
Less successful is a sub-plot involving the ambitious TV journalist Slavica (Labina Mitevska), who tries to record an expose on the situation for her news broadcaster. The subtlety that enhances the main story does not feel as evident here, and it repeatedly lapses into stereotype. Simply put: whenever the film leaves Petrunya’s side it immediately becomes less interesting. The film also stumbles somewhat in its final act. The arrival of an angry crowd of religious competitors threatens a violent escalation that never eventuates, with a half-hearted gesture towards romance between Petrunya and junior cop Darko (Stefan Vujisic) feels a little under-cooked.
While some of the film’s branches and supporting elements are left to wither on the vine, the core of Petrunya is a richly characterised and a gently satirical treat. This is a film with social comments to make, but a keen awareness that it is character and not messages that drive a film with viewers.