When I first met Ralitza Petrova in Cannes in 2009, the future seemed bright. With the UK’s National Film and Television School on her CV and her short By the Grace of God selected at Cinéfondation, it seemed only a matter of time before she made it big. At the same time, Kamen Kalev’s feature debut Eastern Plays had just premiered at Directors’ Fortnight to rave reviews, prompting many industry people to look on the map for a country called Bulgaria.
As years passed by, more and more Bulgarian feature debuts created a buzz on the festival scene: Dragomir Sholev’s Shelter (2010), Konstantin Bojanov’s Avé (2011), Kristina Nikolova’s Faith, Love and Whiskey (2012), Maya Vitkova’s Viktoria (2014), Kristina Grozeva and Petar Valchanov’s The Lesson (2014), Eliza Petkova’s Zhaleika (2016). But it was not until this summer that Ralitza Petrova appeared again in the public eye to present Godless, a Bulgarian-Danish-French co-production, in the Official Competition at Locarno, where it scooped the Golden Leopard and three other prizes. In Sarajevo only a week later, the feature earned two more accolades; it was only the tears rolling down Petrova’s face which hinted that her triumphant return, seven years later, might not have been an easy one.
Set in the wintry landscape of a bleak small town at the foothills of the Balkan Mountain, Godless comes across as a dire vision born in the mind of By the Grace of God’s delusional protagonist. Why did the writer-director opt for her full-length film to tell the story of a troubled nurse, Gana, who takes care of elderly people while stealing their ID cards? What happened after the success of her short film in the UK and its DVD release at the British Film Institute, Tate Modern, and the Institute of Contemporary Arts? “I was a projectionist at BFI,” Petrova tells me. “It was a romantic job,” she adds, “with a lot of time aside to write (...) But then I started thinking, it was like I was barking up the wrong tree in Britain.”
In 2012, the opportunity to shoot a film in Bulgaria presented itself. Having been labelled “a European director”, and no chance of re-living “the groundbreaking, innovative stuff happening in the UK in the 1960s and the 1970s,” Petrova felt this was “a natural sort of bridge” to connect with her identity.
“A friend of a friend had told me of someone who was scamming the state. I knew the guy, we grew up in the same area in Sofia. He was like me in a way — a normal guy — but he started doing this. And he was doing it on the shoulders of gypsies, poor people, and they were kind of happy to sell their IDs, because they’d receive something equivalent to £100. For me, it almost stood as a metaphor for the poor, that all there is that’s left for them is a passport, their identity to be sold. And the state doesn’t care.”
International critics have labeled Godless social realism, but it's infused with absurdity, poetics, hyperrealism
For this reason, many international critics already labelled Godless social realism – undoubtedly a reflex when it comes to the cinema of eastern Europe. Petrova insists on underlining that this is not the case: “Yes, at first sight Godless is stark, brutal realism, but it is infused with absurdity, poetics ... suddenly those images become an impression, hyperrealist.”
When talking about her work, the filmmaker often uses the term “Bressonian”, citing also Carlos Reygadas, Pablo Larraín and Werner Herzog as her influences. Then come the customary comparisons with Romanian cinema; for many foreign journalists, the two countries’ geographical proximity and similar socio-political problems warrant a parallel. Petrova confesses her admiration for prominent Romanian director Cristi Puiu, and particularly for his most radical oeuvre, Aurora (2010): “Like in Godless, this film is very conceptual and urges you to start interpreting; the frame becomes interesting as such, reinventing itself.” But in general, she says, “the Romanian New Wave is not where I go for inspiration”.
Indeed, in Aurora Cristi Puiu goes to great lengths to seal off any perception of inner life or of psychology-driven characters whereas in Godless Gana’s face is a riddle we have to solve little by little. Her static relationship with her pill-popping mother, her boyfriend/accomplice and her part-droll/part-miserable senile patients — all gradually unwind with sparse dialogue. Petrova admits that the purpose of this tableau vivant take was to “elevate the story” and turn it into an allegory.
“I orchestrated actors as instruments, rather than people,” she says. “As my closest collaborators know, I do not rely on performance. I say stuff like ‘sit here, pass the salt, think of your dog dying’ (...) I just took it to another level of austerity.” But then the film’s silent power would have been impossible also without newcomer Irena Ivanova starring in the role of Gana, who picked up the Best Actress Award in both Locarno and Sarajevo.
“I orchestrated actors as instruments, rather than people; as my closest collaborators know, I do not rely on performance”
Another key component in the success of Godless is the camera work by Krum Rodriguez, the same director of photography who shot many of the aforementioned Bulgarian debuts. In interviews Petrova often declares that the impulse to become a filmmaker was born from a Masuo Ikeda painting. Thus she uses the camera as a paintbrush, just as she refers to her style as “haiku”. She turns the mountains surrounding Gana’s town into a minimalist setting inviting contemplation and introspection.
Godless (Bezbog) is one of the highest mountain peaks in Bulgaria, whose name, closely linked to Slavic mythology, is in this case clearly serving as a metonym for the country, too. The more we learn about Gana’s childhood trauma, the more grounded the storyline leading up to the cathartic finale becomes. This is especially true given the broad and intricate historical context of national traumas implied in the film: the Ottoman rule, the communist repression in the early years of the regime, the turmoil of the Yugoslav wars.
Petrova agrees with my theory that Gana can be seen as a collective person and goes on to say that “all of sudden, you look back at those people who would all have shared a story of repression, abuse, humiliation, of not being able to express themselves.” Explaining the vicious and tragic circle of karma summed up in Godless, she adds: “it is just the status-quo, you constantly take turns being a perpetrator and a victim.”
At the end of our conversation, with her debut serving as a commentary for “post-1989” cinema, I turn the conversation to Petrova’s place in Bulgarian film. But the young filmmaker feels more comfortable talking about Raketa, the collective of aspiring Bulgarian directors she is a part of, all of whom she thanks in the final credits of her feature. “This was my tribute to them, and a statement, in a way, of the fact that we make a different type of cinema, cinema that is more engaged with the problems of Bulgaria, and most of all — with our problematic heritage.”
With many upcoming festivals on Godless’s agenda and two more projects in development, Petrova is back for good.