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Review: Bulgarian ‘Viktoria’ marks bracing debut for filmmaker

The first glimpse of the title character in the history-probing drama “Viktoria” finds her in utero, a fetus suspended in a warm red glow. It’s 1980, and the infant girl will be hailed as “Socialist Bulgaria’s Baby of the Decade” upon her birth, her puzzling lack of a bellybutton interpreted by the ruling party’s leader as a sign of a more efficient future.

Such inventively surreal virtues mark Maya Vitkova’s ambitious debut feature as the arrival of a bracing cinematic talent. Examining the final years of Eastern Europe’s communist bloc through one family’s story, she fuses artfully composed visuals and stinging black comedy around a lead performance, by Irmena Chichikova, of stunningly unapologetic gloom.

Disappointingly, the writer-director doesn’t sustain the satiric pulse. Veering into conventional, sentimental territory, the narrative loses its bite and its way in the second half of its considerable running time. Yet, while the intended dramatic payoff proves a letdown, it doesn’t undo the allegorical power of the movie’s searing depiction of groupthink and its fallout.

“Viktoria” opens with the conception, in a cramped Sofia apartment, of the soon-to-be-celebrated baby. Pregnancy is a source of bitter dismay for Boryana (Chichikova). A librarian who rips images of Western culture from magazines, saving them like amulets that might guide her across the border, she has insisted on forestalling parenthood until she and her cheerfully placid doctor husband, Ivan (Dimo Dimov), have escaped Bulgaria. But leaving is a matter of less urgency for him than fathering a child, and he gets his way despite Boryana’s best efforts at inducing a miscarriage.

Nine years later, she’s barely coexisting with Ivan and their daughter (Daria Vitkova, perfectly petulant), a spoiled pet of the country’s leader, Todor Zhivkov (a real-life politician played by Georgi Spasov with just the right touch of farce). The head of state regularly invites Viktoria for lunch, showcases her talentless performances at official events, and has installed a hotline in her bedroom so that they can chat whenever the spirit moves either of them. Cruel and self-centered, the girl would be a nightmare for most anyone. For Boryana, she’s also the living embodiment of her failure to flee an oppressive society.

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Boryana’s misery has a wild, parodic punch, especially in moments when maternal tenderness, or at least its pretense, is the customary default mode. Her every morose glare and gum-chewing eye-roll is an indictment. High on her list of guilty parties is her heartless apparatchik mother (Mariana Krumova), whom Boryana rightly dismisses as “a party member, not a mom.”

With terrific precision and mordancy, Vitkova filters recent political history through female experience. News footage sets the stage as the film jumps through the years, ending in the mid-’90s, when the role of Viktoria is handled, nearly wordlessly, by Kalina Vitkova (like the younger actress, she’s a niece of the director). Chichikova’s caustic gaze, in combination with the director’s discerning one, lays bare the ways that motherhood becomes a function of the state. In a sequence with all the absurdist incisiveness of Amy Schumer’s best skits, a committee of male party officials compares the newborn, navel-less Viktoria and her nursery mate, a boy born with a club foot, to determine who’s a more worthy national symbol.

The filmmaker’s deliriously dark humor fades as the saga proceeds, her control giving way to a form of self-indulgence. However undeniable the elegance of Krum Rodriguez’s cinematography, the film’s final 45 minutes feel stuck in poetic imagery. The movie goes soft, asking us to care about characters who have until now been emblematic — and brilliantly so.

Only Boryana, an unforgettable figure of 20th century Europe, is emotionally involving. Bringing a rare mastery to the strongest parts of “Viktoria,” Vitkova tells a woman’s story in a way that’s never before been seen.

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‘Viktoria’

In Bulgarian with English subtitles

No rating

Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes

Playing: Laemmle’s Royal, Beverly Hills


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