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Movie Review: 'Petrunya' Throws A Town Into A Tizzy To Skewer The Patriarchy

1844 Entertainment

Each year in January, on Epiphany, Eastern Orthodox communities in certain parts of the world—including one in Florida—hold the “throwing of the cross,” during which a priest heaves a cross into a river or the sea, and a group of boys and men dive in to retrieve it, with the winner expected to receive good fortune for the next year.

Note, there, that I said “boys and men,” not “people,” or “girls,” or “women and men.” This ceremony is reserved for males—yes, even in Florida—though supposedly in 2014, a woman in an eastern Macedonian town wasn’t interested in this restriction, and she jumped in and gathered up the cross herself. This set off a firestorm among the locals, and serves as the basis for the North Macedonian film God Exists, Her Name Is Petrunya, a satire that attacks the country’s patriarchal social and religious structure, and is mostly successful before what seems to be a bizarre deflation at the end.

Petrunya is a woman in her early 30s in Štip, a major textile-producing city of about 43,000. As the movie begins, she’s living unemployed at home, seemingly uninterested in doing much—although whether that’s because she’s aimless or has simply decided to stop pushing back against a society that offers her few options isn’t entirely clear. She has a history degree, which does her no good, and she bombs an interview for a secretary position at a factory, partly because she has no real work experience, partly because the factory boss would prefer to hire someone he could put the moves on. As she wanders, she comes upon the rest of the town at the cross throwing ceremony, as a bunch of men in their underwear yell at a priest to toss the thing in the river already. The cross goes in the water, so do the men, and so does Petrunya, fully clothed. She, of course, is the one who comes out with the cross, and chaos ensues. Why did she do it? Why not? Who couldn’t use a year of good fortune?

There’s a long tradition of throwing towns into tizzies for social commentary—Preston Sturges’s skewering may have been light, but he was brilliant at upheaval; more recently The Simpsons and South Park have been much more cutting in their mockery. It’s an attractive approach, both because, in this case, it exposes something nutty that really happened, and because it can use a little absurdity to take on much larger issues. Petrunya is taken into police custody because, well, they’re an authority, but she’s not arrested, because she hasn’t done anything actually illegal. The townspeople run around saying she’s stolen the cross, but of course she hasn’t, everyone saw her jump in and retrieve it, and if they weren’t there, they’ve certainly seen the video on the internet. Petrunya says it’s hers, which it is, the town and local religious figures say it can’t be hers, because she’s a woman. And why can’t a woman jump in to retrieve the cross? Because they can’t, that’s why. As the movie goes on, the townspeople and the police become more and more aggressive, and even brutal, in how they regard Petrunya, who steadfastly refuses to give up the cross, and we see how wrapped up the social, political, religious, and legal structures are with each other. The director, Teona Strugar Mitevska, is clever about how she winds this all together with the modern media climate, as a local reporter tries to tell the story against the interests of her male bosses and coworker, and it’s clear the rapidity of the internet is important in both building up and tearing down Petrunya.

And then, somehow, all the air goes out. I’m not sure exactly what happened toward the end of the film—we seem to be going along with the tension, and then suddenly the situation is resolved. The local priest reaches an understanding, Petrunya is magnanimous, and that’s that. This doesn’t kill the movie, what came before is still sharp and fairly trenchantly observed, but it’s too jarring not to notice, and it left me with the feeling that there really was no ending. I don’t want to assume too much, I’m always wary when something that doesn’t quite add up for me happens in a non-American film and I regret that I can’t know the cultural nuances, but it’s such an abrupt shift that I felt a bit left at sea. But a movie is a lot of things, not just an ending, and while this one is going, it’s a sharp, slyly entertaining look at something that ought to be nonsense, but somehow isn’t.

God Exists, Her Name Is Petrunya is now playing in virtual cinemas.

Fletcher Powell has worked at KMUW since 2009 as a producer, reporter, and host. He's been the host of All Things Considered since 2012 and KMUW's movie critic since 2016. Fletcher is a member of the Critics Choice Association.