Maya Vitkova’s eloquent, ambitious, emotionally committed drama Viktoria premiered at Sundance 10 years ago and more than deserves its UK streaming release now. This excellent film would be a striking accomplishment from anyone – and this was actually Vitkova’s debut. It feels fierce and urgent: tremendously designed, acted and shot. Viktoria is an intergenerational women’s story from Bulgaria both before and after the 1989 revolutions, a film that maybe in its absurdism, scepticism and slow-burn passion shows the influences of Romanian director Radu Jude, with whom Vitkova worked on short films. On TV, Vitkova produced an episode of Michael Palin’s BBC TV New Europe travel series, heading across the Balkans; Viktoria, interestingly, has an image of someone walking across the snow, only to be flicked over by a giant hand from the sky.
In Sofia, Bulgaria, in the low-morale 70s, a young woman called Boryana (Irmena Chichikova) is plotting her escape from the dreary Eastern bloc with her doctor husband Ivan (Dimo Dimov); she dreams of the US and has a cigarette lighter in the shape of the Statue of Liberty. Her disloyal views are very much not shared by her glowering mother Dima (Mariana Krumova) who is a diehard communist and cannot conceive of any existence other than submission to the (male) party power structure. When Boryana gets pregnant, she is horrified, and does everything she can to abort the child; she does not have the milk of maternal kindness in her. Milk is to be the film’s keynote image of frustration and discontent – along with the blood of the yearned-for miscarriage.
But her baby girl Viktoria – whom we first see bobbing around in the womb as an eerie red presence – is born on Bulgarian Victory day, 9 September, with no umbilical cord or belly button. The party authorities decide that that this baby is symbolic of a bold young country in a permanently revolutionary state of renewal, without the belly button of old loyalties. So Viktoria and her family get special privileges, always under officialdom’s eye, thus permanently ruining Boryana’s chances of a discreet escape. Viktoria grows up to be a pampered, brattish 10-year-old (Daria Vitkova), who is allowed to inspect the belly buttons of fellow pupils at her special school and use a special hotline to phone her adoring godfather, the prime minister. As for Boryana, she is in a catatonic state of resentment: she smiles just once, 50 minutes into the movie, when she thinks she might be about to escape.
Then the Berlin Wall falls, and grandmother, mother and daughter are orphaned by the times; the umbilical cord that linked them to their various emotional certainties has vanished. Dima relapses into shock, not unlike her daughter’s silent resentment; Boryana is unsure what to make of the new freedom at home which she has spent her life assuming could only exist abroad. Young Viktoria grows to be a teenager (now played by Kalina Vitkova); all her princessy entitlement has been confiscated but she achieves a new kind of maturity in a closer relationship with her grandmother.
The power of Viktoria is in the tragedy of an unused life, unused passion, unfulfilled potential and unrealised existence. For Boryana and her generation, 1989 and the end of communism was a seismic but uninterpretable event; they were not old enough (like Dima) to have known the security of the old communist ways, nor young enough (like Viktoria) fully to enjoy the new freedoms. The film shows that after the Soviet collapse, there is something strange, drifting, almost anticlimactic. Hideous though postwar communism was, it was in some ways a great period, replete with drama and purpose and meaning; now that has gone, and they are left with a blankness, as blank as Viktoria’s belly button-free stomach. There is a sense of loss but of something else too: the possibility of reinvention and a historical slate wiped clean.
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