by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday April 29, 2016


Writer-director Maya Vitkova's feature film debut "Viktoria" is a dense, complex film that takes a fantastical element -- a baby girl born without a navel -- and spins it into a lyrical and melancholic take on motherhood, be it of the political, social, or biological sort.

The film is set in Bulgaria, both before and after the fall of communism. A decade prior to communism's collapse, Boryana (Irmena Chichikova) and her husband Ivan (Dimo Dimov) conceive a child -- an event that Ivan, eager for fatherhood, seems to know has happened at the very moment it takes place. Boryana is less enthusiastic. In fact, she's not enthusiastic at all: She'd rather not have a baby, at least not while still stuck behind the Iron Curtain, grasping at the relics of Western life (Coca-Cola, fashion magazines, a cigarette lighter in the shape of the Statue of Liberty) that evoke for her the freedom and prosperity of another way of life.

Another reason Boryana isn't keen on the idea of motherhood (but is based with the West) is that her own mother (Mariana Krumova) was less than maternal toward her, being too wrapped up in party ideology. When Boryana's mother finds her energetically douching the morning after some late-night sex with Ivan, her glare communicates disdain that we take to be as much (or more) political as rooted in any biological imperative.

Despite Boryana's postcoital attempts at birth control, her pregnancy progresses. In due course, she goes into labor and, in a hospital room shared with another woman in the throes of childbirth, she delivers. Both new arrivals are unusual: The woman across the room has given birth to a boy with a deformed foot; Boryana has delivered a child with no umbilical cord and, thus, no belly button.

Both children are instantly celebrated by the state. Viktoria, the infant with no navel, is regarded as proof positive that communism is changing human biology and, therefore, human destiny. Viktoria is hailed as the start of a new species of worker that will be self-sufficient and entirely devoted to contributing to the betterment of the motherland. She's also dubbed "Baby of the Decade" by the party. To show that the party also takes care of those who need it, Stefcho, the boy baby, is also celebrated, and both sets of parents are rewarded with cars and large apartments.

But it's Viktoria who is the star, and Viktoria who is given her own private telephone line to the office of the country's leader, Zhivkov (Georgi Spasov). Unquestioningly adored and lauded for her most trivial actions, Viktoria (Daria Vitkova) turns into a nasty, spoiled brat; by age nine she's openly dismissive of her parents and borderline abusive to others. Then two things happen: First, Viktoria discovers that everyone else has a belly button (which she regards as being an "ugly wound"). To others Viktoria denounces the human navel as an "ugly wound," but the thought that she lacks something everyone else has in common nags at her, and Viktoria begins to obsess over her own lack of a feature that's both a scar and a mark of maternal connection.

Not that her own mother offers much connection. As a new mother, and even nine years later, Boryana remains listless and indifferent; you'd almost think she had a really bad case of post-partum depression, except that her post-natal demeanor differs not at all from her pre-pregnancy disposition. Only twice does Boryana light up: First, during an abortive attempt to flee to the West; then, later, when communism implodes and democracy is about to take hold in Bulgaria.

But Boryana's happiness at the end of the communist era is fleeting, and even as she's given her spark of hope Viktoria is plunged into depression. As a child of the party, she was celebrated, privileged, and special; now, with communism at its end and her pal Zhivkov in disgrace, Viktoria's only distinguishing feature is the absence of something that is otherwise universal to human physiology.

The film has a decidedly Freudian bent, with its mother issues and related fixations, including a strange aversion to that symbol of mother love, milk: In one climactic scene, a rainstorm of milk drenches Boryana. The film's color palette echoes those fixations, with white a recurring hue, as is red -- the hue not only of blood (which appears in a dazzling array of contexts), but also of communism itself.

Cinematographer Krum Rodriguez's work is gorgeous throughout, with specific moments emphasized for effect: Certain shots are framed with overly meticulous care, so that they hammer at points poignant or satirical. (In one shot, the family car is presented in way that parodies Western car commercials.) Elsewhere -- in the womb, and snuggled in bed with her now-elderly (and tenderly affectionate) grandmother -- Viktoria escapes both cold blankness and ideological absolutism, enfolded in a golden glow. (In the latter instance the glow comes, tellingly, from a globe of the world.)

Kalyan Dmitrov's score is dreamlike, but remains rooted in Bulgarian vocal traditions; it's sometimes a little too ethereal, but the score works well with the visuals. The film's many instances of surreal (and hyper-real) imagery include a dream sequence in which Viktoria, dressed in red, trudges alone across a featureless white field covered in snow. A giant hand enters the frame, index finger pointing at her; then the finger knocks her down. What better visual shorthand of the notion that to be the favored one of the gods (or the party) is a precarious distinction?

Eventually, Viktoria grows up (she's played by Kalina Vitkova as an adult) and adjusts to life in the post-communism East. Like her mother before her, Viktoria dreams of a life in another country, a freer and sunnier place; will she achieve this ambition? If so, will it be a geographical or a psychological accomplishment? And if daughter starts out like mother, only to exceed her mother's limitations, can mother in turn become more like daughter? This film, so graceful and yet jagged, offers unsentimental and sometimes cruel observations, but also extends a certain sort of hope.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.