It could be purely coincidental, but the fact that the first four films I’ve chosen to single out at this year’s Berlinale all have (at least judging by their titles) religious themes/connotations could also be indicative of our zeitgeist. Obviously spirituality has marked the history of mankind from the very beginning, but it seems likely that, in this time of global unrest, people feel ever more compelled to resort to or, conversely, question conventional belief systems and what they stand for. And the films are here to document that.
Macedonian filmmaker Teona Strugar Mitevska’s competition entry GOD EXISTS, HER NAME IS PETRUNYA centers around the everyday sexism of archaic religious practices but proceeds to observe the repercussions of deep-rooted prejudices in all aspects of life and arrives at a stirring, thought-provoking conclusion. It’s not the most refined production to have screened so far, but features some of the most vividly drawn characters to deliver a fresh, potent spin on the issue of gender inequality reinforced by religion.
The titular Petrunya is in fact no deity – far from it. As a 32-year-old single, unemployed young woman still living with her parents, she seems very much stuck in her earthbound existence. She can’t find a job with her degree in history, gets sexually harassed while being called ugly, even her own mother makes it a habit to body-shame her. After yet another failed interview, Petrunya stumbles upon a local ritual in progress where the men of her town race to catch a wooden cross thrown into the river by the bishop for a year of prosperity. The luckless girl ends up beating all her virile rivals to the prize and draws immediate, violent attack, for the ceremony traditionally forbids female participation. During the course of one day, her family, the police, the prosecutor, the bishop, the protesters and a TV crew covering the scandal would piece together a semi-satirical look at what it means/takes to be a woman as we approach the third decade of the 21st century.
Mitevska’s screenplay starts off on familiar ground as we see Petrunya suffer familial and societal abuse for not conforming to conventional beauty standards or gender role. The cross-catching snafu at first doesn’t appear to be a catalyst explosive enough to take the storyline anywhere surprising either. But as the aftermath of the event gradually ripples outward, Mitevska manages to describe through subtle character development and a nuanced, non-preachy voice how the dynamics of systematic discrimination work. Balancing breezy parody and a deep sense of indignation with finesse, this is an engaging, wonderfully expressive piece of writing.
Lead actress Zorica Nusheva will probably be included in best actress discussions at the end of the fest for bringing the resilient, quick-witted Petrunya to life. For addressing an age-old injustice with an infectiously lively approach, the film could find itself in contention for one of the major prizes.
Premiering in the Panorama sidebar, Greek crime thriller THE MIRACLE OF THE SARGASSO SEA is only tangentially related to spiritualism, but its use of religious allegories contributes to the lingering mystique in a pitch-dark tale of two women trying desperately to break free from their fates.
The movie opens with a prologue of sorts recreating the terrorist investigation that cost competent, unfortunately also conscientious police detective Elisabeth (Angeliki Papoulia) her career in Athens. Jumping forward ten years, we meet Elisabeth again as the washed-up, world-weary police chief at the small coastal town of Mesolongi. She conducts work and family life irresponsibly, seems only motivated by self-destructive instincts, reeks of alcohol and defeat. Meanwhile, we are introduced to another middle-aged lady called Rita (Youla Boudali) who works at the local eel packaging factory. Something’s off with Rita, even if you can’t put your finger on it. Her interaction with her senile mother and club owner brother is odd to say the least. The way she carries herself also suggests this socially awkward, often distracted woman isn’t always quite there. The paths of these two lost souls will eventually cross, what we then find out is pretty shocking indeed.
In its tense, high-stakes third act, THE MIRACLE OF THE SARGASSO SEA assumes the tropes of a (sleekly made) traditional crime procedural. Before then, however, writer/director Syllas Tzoumerkas applies an hypnotically creepy blend of surrealism and near-absurdist flair that would do the Greek New Wave proud. Framed and shot with ominous beauty, the film’s imagery often looks strikingly picturesque while filling you with an unshakable sense of dread (think Yorgos Lanthimos’ filmography). The editing is ace, giving the scenes such a peculiar cadence that constantly mystifies.
Both lead actresses turned in solid performances. Lanthimos oft-collaborator Papoulia is always an compelling screen presence. Her portrayal of someone so scarred and jaded they only re-found their life’s purpose when someone even worse off turns up is convincing every step of the way. Boudali’s character harbors secrets so horrifying they render her numb and emotionless. Her performance, marked by a distinct body language and an absent stare, gets that brokenness across but never leaves you with just unlayered void.
The film’s awards prospects might be dampened by its ultra-graphic reveal but it’s nevertheless an exhilarating exercise in genre filmmaking with legitimate dramatic aspirations. The same can’t be said, by the way, of German director Fatih Akin’s competition entry THE GOLDEN GLOVE. To uphold the spirit of positivity here at AD, we shall not go into details here. Suffice it to say that, as an Akin admirer and unapologetic lover of THE HOUSE THAT JACK BUILT, I find this real-life serial killer profile gratuitously, meaninglessly violent to the point of sickening. You also probably won’t see another film that “smells” as awful any time soon. So proceed with caution.