Thursday, April 28, 2016

Mothering, Bulgarian-style, in Maya Vitkova's gorgeous personal/political oddity, VIKTORIA

What a knockout (for a good while, at least) is VIKTORIA, the near-new (made in 2014) film from Maya Vitkova, shown below, which is said to be based somewhat on the filmmaker's own life -- with a little magic realism/ absurdity tossed in for good measure. We've long heard that popular phrase advising us that "the political is personal" -- or is it the other way around? -- but seldom do we see something that brings this idea to such specific life, if in awfully free-ranging fashion.

Viktoria, the character, is the spawn of Boryana and her live-in boyfriend who occupy a one-room apartment with Boryana's mom.The movie begins with their morning lovemaking, with mom unhappily listening. Well, this is Bulgaria under Communism, so there's little chance for even a separate bedroom. Though mom is still a true believer, who, according to Boryana, sacrificed her daughter's betterment for that of the Communist Party's, Boryana herself seems like a person drained of all hope. When her BF asks what they will name the baby he expects to have just helped conceive, she asks blankly, "What baby?"

And, yes, there is a baby -- an absolute delight of a cutie, above, who is born without a belly button (we won't get into how this is medically possible; that's part of the magic realism/symbolism on display) and so becomes a "hero" of the People's Republic of Bulgaria, and a clear sign to the powers- that-be that Bulgarian babies no longer need umbilical cords. What a country!

Ms Vitkova's rendition of the country's Communist leaders, along with her hilarious portrayal of Viktoria's education and elementary school years, where she is played by the very game Daria Vitkova (above, and the filmmaker's niece) -- how the power structure facilitates her every wish and need -- shows us a country that seems to have grown stupider with each ensuing decade. No wonder our Boryana is depressed.

She is also, as portrayed by actress Irmena Chichikova, shown above and below, one hell of a beauty, with a face the camera just loves. And this is where Vitkova begins to go a bit off-kilter. She sticks that camera on Chichikova's lovely, dark, deep face far too often and too long. For awhile we're so besotted with this weird tale and the pyrotechnics of the Communist nit-witticisms that we march along happily, both marvelling at and appalled by what we see and hear.

But the movie goes on for over two and one-half hours, and once the fall of Communism occurrs and Capitalism has reared its almost equally ugly head, much of the fun goes out of the film, and we're left with a little too much artsy-fartsy. feminist-to-a-fault filmmaking that drains the energy from Viktoria, both the character, who by now is a very sad young adult (played by Kalina Vitkova, another of the filmmaker's nieces, shown below), and the film itself.

This is too bad, because there is so much to recommend about the movie, from its use of symbolism -- cutting the other umbilical cord to the red-button phone (below) that links Viktoria to her country's leader, and showing us the great need for (and multitudinous ways to dispense) milk -- to its rich cinematography (by Krum Rodriguez) to the director's often buoyant and funny visual and verbal sense (Ms Vitkova also wrote the ambitious screenplay).

The film has its own rhythm, as well, and it's quite slow, and sometimes repetitious. But as the three generations of women we meet break further apart and then try to feebly bond again, the movie also begins to turn a bit too sentimental -- even if Vitkova does not, thankfully, go all out in this direction. We hope for better days for at least two of the three generations, for Viktoria especially. But given what we see and learn about Bulgaria through these eyes, the future is not particularly bright. There's an enormous and very real longing here for "elsewhere."  Venice, anyone?

Viktoria -- a Bulgaria/Romania co-production released in the USA by Big World Pictures and running 156 minutes -- opens in its U.S. theatrical premiere this Friday, April 29, in New York City at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema and IFC Center, and on May 13 in Chicago at Facets Cinematheque, and then in Los Angeles on June 10 at Laemmle's Royal. Elsewhere? Maybe, if some positive word-of-mouth builds. Goodness knows, this movie does not easily compare with much else you'll have seen. And for real film buffs, that may be enough to entice.

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