Godless | Bezbog (2016) | Golden Leopard Winner | Locarno 2016
Dir: Ralitza Petrova | Cast: Irena Ivanova, Alexander Triffinov, Ivan Nalbantov, Ventzislav Konstantinov, Dimitri Petkov; Bulgaria/France/Den | drama | 100 min.
The first feature film by Bulgarian director/writer Ralitza Petrova, who studied at the NFTS, won the Golden Leopard at last year’s Locarno Film Festival, and its main protagonist Irena Ivanova, was awarded the prize for Best Actress. Reminiscent of Jim Thompson, this minimalist, small town noir is a stunning debut from an uncompromising talent.
Gana (Ivanova) is a geriatric and dementia nurse in the small Bulgarian mountain town of Vratsa. The young woman seems caring at first, but it soon emerges that she is stealing her patients’ ID-cards. She, and her partner Aleko (Konstantinoiv), a car mechanic, sell the ID-cards to the local police officer Pavel (Triffinov), who runs a money laundering racket. Pavel is also in league with the local judge (Petkov), who makes sure that any complaints are rebuffed by the court.
However, despite all this criminal activity Dana lives a modest existence with her mother in a run-down apartment block, where gun fire is a nightly occurence. Her sexless relationship with Aleko gets by on a morphine addiction, which Gana steals together with other prescription drugs. Her relationship with her mother is equally emotionless, summed up by Gana herself in the words: “I want to love, but can’t. Neither can you. Do you have any pills for it?”.
Unflitchingly grim, this is a drama that delves into the sad deparavity of modern life in this formally Stalinist state where corruption and larceny seems endemic and continues to thrive despite apparent economic improvememts. But there is a chink of light in the darkness that sees Gana redeeming herself in the final act.
GODLESS takes its – ironic – title from a mountain near Vratsa, were a local priest in the middle ages took his flock and was duly massacred by invaders. The cryptic coda of the film might refer to this. Sparse and unforgiving, Godless is a claustrophobic masterpiece. Rooms are narrow and unlit, grimy snow covers a bleak landscape. Even a brothel scene, where the judge and Pavel copulate, is passionless. In her apartment block, Gana finds a young boy alone in the staircase. He later wanders off and watches a couple having sex, having left the door to their flat open. Desolate and abandoned, people in post-communist Bulgaria seem to have given up on themselves. DoPs Krum Rodriquez and Chayse Irvin evoke this grim rigour on 35 mm film, transferred to digital. With its opaque conclusion, Petrova avoids any judgemental comment. GODLESS is a cheerless experience – but it is a gem despite its restricted budget. MT
GODLESS HAS BEEN AWARDED THE GOLDEN LEOPARD AT LOCARNO 2016 AND TOP PRIZE AT THE SOFIA AWARDS 2017