Review: “Viktoria”: A Great Film About Women, by a Woman

The New Yorker
April 2016
(Words by Richard Brody)

“Viktoria” runs on the power of political pageantry and propaganda, mass political events, ambient jargon. Vitkova’s depiction of historical personae and events suggests the tuning and conditioning of imagination, and of personal identity, through both the ubiquity and the pressure of political power. Boryana—or the actress Chichikova—has huge eyes that seem made for the epithet “soulful”; the character’s gaze is marked by a rueful detachment from the world around her, a contemptuous defiance of the lies and constraints on which daily life under a repressive regime is based. It’s a look that’s turned inward, maintaining watch over her intimate life as it rots in isolation from the world around her, and even over her inner physical life, her very body, as it betrays her. “Viktoria” is a story of love and its byways and diversions, which result from the titanic clash between the external power of politics and the equally powerful imperatives of the body.

Physical connections made and broken, the most intimate sense of selfhood and self-alienation in terms of a woman’s body, are the core of the film, and Vitkova’s images have a powerfully intimate physicality to match. She realizes richly textured pictures of piquant imbalances and dynamic proximities and distances, captures the tones and conflicts of daily life with a light but intricate domestic choreography. Early in the film, a simple scene of Boryana brushing her teeth in the bathroom, while her husband finishes his shower, is done with a compact complexity of action that makes it seem like a turbulent street scene, its mixed emotions whirling about amid the jangled angularities of the tense and tight space. She displays a poetic sense of the power of repetition, as with recurring shots (both puckishly frontal and disorientingly overhead), transformed by their contexts and moods, of a car pulling into the apartment courtyard.

It’s as if “Viktoria” were filmed in the grammatical feminine; it’s one of the great recent films by a woman about women, and it casts Vitkova to the forefront of contemporary filmmakers. Her inventiveness, her confessional and technical audacity, her emotional and historical insight, the unity of her dramatic and aesthetic sensibilities, make the film a treasure of the current cinema. All the more astonishingly, it’s Vitkova’s first feature; all the more dismayingly, it has been sitting on the shelf for two years, after premièring at Sundance in 2014. It’s the first Bulgarian film to be shown at Sundance and one of the few Bulgarian films to be shown in the United States at all. It may take a movie industry to give rise to a movie artist, but it takes one great director to press ahead and open the artistic spaces in which other filmmakers can let their own imagination run free. On the basis of “Viktoria” alone, the Bulgarian cinema has a bright future.”

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