by Jordan Green
Viktoria screens at A/perture 2 today at 10 a.m., Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and April 26 at 1:30 p.m. as part of RiverRun International Film Festival in Winston-Salem. Lead actor Irmena Chichikova attends all screenings.
Mild interest and tedium may be the initial reactions from American viewers — especially sleep-deprived and harried parents — to this epic Bulgarian art film, but the aftertaste turns out to be far more impactful than the meal.
And what a meal! At 155 minutes, Viktoria covers two decades, interweaving a young woman’s birth and development with an obscure eastern European nation’s lurching transition from communism to post-whatever.
Viktoria encompasses at least three different genres — taut Godardian comedy, outlandish spoof and lyrical poem.
Beginning with the tense humor of Boryana and Ivan, a young couple trying to enjoy occasional intimacy in the cramped apartment they share with Boryana’s mother, the film proceeds onto the vexed topic of the couple’s conflicting views on procreation. The ambivalent circumstances of their child’s eventual conception, despite Boryana’s best efforts, set up the grand joke of the film. Thanks to the fluke of being born with no belly button, Viktoria is named Socialist Bulgaria’s Baby of the Decade.
What follows is about an hour of uproarious comedy, with Viktoria as the bratty pet of communist leader Todor Zhivkov, whose sanctimony and ridiculousness is played with hilarity by Georgi Spasov.
“This wonderful baby — Viktoria — fuels our hope for a brighter future,” Zhivkov says in a key scene. “For a new kind of man, stronger, harmonious, detached from the past, while in touch with the future… when pregnant women will be working for the well-being of society, while their embryos grow and turn into babies somewhere else now that it’s become clear that we no longer need umbilical cords.”
The various ways that members of Viktoria’s family react to this entirely unearned honor, with Boryana drifting ever further into disaffection while Ivan and his mother-in-law clumsily embrace their newfound privileges, is only one of the film’s many satisfactions. Without spoiling the plot, suffice it to say that the characters’ various negotiations with the state and personal infidelities intertwine in ways that turn out to be richly ironic. That Maya Vitkova not only directed the film, but also wrote and produced it makes it all the more a triumph.
One might expect that the sudden and unceremonious toppling of the communist dictatorship in 1989 would provide a fitting conclusion to the film. Yet the fascination of seeing how the various characters adjust to their change in status after the fall of communism only deepens. And here the film departs from its comedic-documentary posture, with liberal use of archival news footage to peg the time period, and ventures into a new territory of symbolism and lyrical cinematography. Transcending the politics of state power, the film pivots to a moving examination of familial relationships within three generations of women. Irmena Chichikova turns in a particularly dazzling performance as Boryana, whose multifaceted personality as both estranged mother and daughter is richly realized.
Dir. Maya Vitkova, Romania/Bulgaria, 155 min., 2014