Bulgarian filmmaker Maya Vitkova’s feature debut, Viktoria, is an impressive display of stylistic control and directorial vision, even if it doesn’t always hold together. The film opens with news footage from 1979 — images of Bulgarian leader Todor Zhivkov, Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Ayatollah Khomeini — before settling on the story of Boryana (Irmena Chichikova), a young wife terrified of having a child before she can leave her country and head West. In this world, the political is personal. And when Boryana does become pregnant and — against all her efforts to miscarry — give birth, the state and the family blend in even more surreal ways.
The child, named Viktoria, is born without a belly button on the anniversary of Bulgaria’s Socialist Revolution. The ruling Communist Party gets wind of this auspicious occurrence; to them, a child without a belly button is symbolic of “a new kind of man — stronger, harmonious, detached from the past while in touch with the future…. We no longer need umbilical cords!” The child is named Socialist Bulgaria’s Baby of the Decade, and the family given special privileges, including a new house and a car. Zhivkov (Georgi Spasov) becomes a regular visitor, picking her up for drives in his car.
Boryana, however, still can’t bring herself to love the child: For her, Viktoria (played as a nine-year-old by Daria Vitkova and as a teenager by Kalina Vitkova) will always represent entrapment and her inability to escape this stultifying, loveless environment. As we watch Viktoria grow up — the film jumps years ahead at several points, almost always landing on some national holiday or otherwise momentous date — it seems that the Party is raising her more than her mother is. When the Iron Curtain begins to fall and Bulgaria’s government to collapse, Viktoria herself loses her foothold. Literally: On the day Zhivkov leaves office, she falls from a tree.
If that sounds heavy-handed, it often is. Much of Viktoria unfolds in a cold, precise atmosphere of political and psychological portent. There’s very little dialogue. The camera holds its compositions, and characters hold their positions, for unnatural lengths of time. This isn’t Jarmuschian deadpan but something altogether more unsettling. The long takes and static shots feel clinical, not playful. For all the artistry that’s clearly on display, Viktoria also toys with tedium over its 150 minutes.
But then, every once in a while, Viktoria offers a moment of such rhapsodic loveliness that it’s easy to forgive its indulgences. Viktoria, injured and bedridden, imagines her mother embracing and caring for her in a heated pool, the gentle steam rising from the water a sharp contrast to the rest of the film’s chilly, angular imagery. Later, we see Boryana standing in the rain as the droplets landing on her turn to mother’s milk, a motif throughout. It also helps that Kaloyan Dimitrov’s ethereal score sometimes fills in the emotional gaps when the characters refuse to do so.
I suspect many responses to Viktoria will fall into two categories: those who prefer either the fastidious allegory of the first two-thirds or so, with its austere long takes of Party gatherings and its stone-faced character interactions, or the more emotional and expressive final third, when the story at last separates the personal from the political. It’s not so much that the two parts are irreconcilable — Vitkova’s style is too controlled, too distinctive for that — but something feels lost in the transition from cerebral epic to intimate drama. Suddenly, we’re asked to care for characters who had previously felt like parts of an equation. But we often do care for them, moved to do so by the occasional images of unsettling beauty. Viktoria may not always work, but it clearly announces the arrival of a major new filmmaking talent.
Directed by Maya Vitkova
Big World Pictures
Opens April 29, IFC Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas