“Haven’t I got the right to be happy?”
In Teona Strugar Mitevska’s God Exists, Her Name Is Petrunya, tradition and modernity come into conflict. We watch as a woman must find her own value when everyone around her sees her as worthless. The church, the community, the police and even her mother all seem to be against her. But she holds on to the hope of a better life—because of a cross. God Exists, Her Name is Petrunya was awarded the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury at the 2019 Berlin Film Festival.
Petrunya (Zorica Nusheva) lives in the Macedonian town of Shtip. She is 32, unwed, unemployed, a bit overweight, and thoroughly unmotivated. Her mother hounds her to change her life. Her best friend seems a bit unsympathetic as well. She goes off on a job interview that goes nowhere because she has no work experience, a major in history, and isn’t sexually appealing to the would be boss.
On her way back, she comes across a procession for a traditional event. Each year on Epihany in many Eastern European towns, the Orthodox priest throws a cross into the water and the men chase after it. Whoever catches the cross receives a year of happiness. Impulsively, Petrunya jumps into the river and catches the cross. Chaos ensues. Women are not allowed to be part of the event. The men are irate. Yet she manages to escape with the cross. In time the police are called in, but has a law been broken, or just tradition? Everyone wants her to give the cross back, but she feels that she has a right to the cross and to the promised happiness. Meanwhile, a woman TV reporter (Labina Mitevska) sees this as a story about discrimination against women (and an opportunity for her own advancement.) As the story progresses, we see Petrunya evolve from insecurity to empowerment.
The film is a statement about paternalistic society and the traditions that hold that in place. Through the first part of the film, there are various shots of manikins. It seems to point to the emptiness of the men we find in the film. The director notes that a few years ago, a woman did take part in such an event and it brought great animosity into her life. But a few years later, when another woman managed to win this event, she was celebrated. So things do slowly change.
For the most part, the cross in this film serves as a MacGuffin, i.e., something that moves the plot along without being dramatically involved. But there are some interesting aspects of the story that show forth precisely because a cross is involved. One of the questions that comes up frequently is to whom the cross belongs. The police inspector tells the priest that if he files a report that says the woman stole the cross, he could act on that crime. But the priest cannot break God’s love by lying. The men of the town who tried to catch the cross, believe it belongs to them. Yet when they confront Petrunya they are anything but Christ-like (even though one of them does look like the way Jesus is pictured in European art). Petrunya is asked if she is religious, but she fails to respond one way or the other, because she doesn’t see the relevance. What matters is that she has the cross and should receive the blessing that goes with it.
All this raises questions for viewers with a faith perspective. What does it mean for the church to be so involved in upholding tradition when it causes pain to others? What does it mean that the church is taking part in a sacred ritual, but the men who are competing are doing it not out of devotion, but out of a toxic masculinity? And really, that question of to whom the cross belongs. Is the cross meant for the strongest or is it to empower the weak? When we grasp the cross, as Petrunya does, are we going to find the blessings we seek?
God Exists, Her Name is Petrunya is playing in select theaters and available on virtual cinema.
Photos courtesy of 1844 Entertainment.