Even though misery is universal and a popular cinematic subject all over the world, Eastern Europe has a particular affinity for it. Whether it’s war, rape or suicide, you can count on a terrible event occurring in almost every film from this region.
Locarno winner Godless, coming from Bulgaria, is no exception. This directing debut by Ralitza Petrova follows Gana (Irena Ivanova), a nurse for senior citizens who steals her patients’ ID cards to be sold on the black market. She seems to have no empathy for any of the people she takes care of. When an elderly woman is accidentally killed, she doesn’t seem to care. Her relationship with her boyfriend is based on a shared love of morphine and her communication with her mother is limited to banalities.
Following Gana’s miserable day-to-day life makes the observer wonder what it is that keeps her going. She’s unhappy and so is everyone around her. Even the communist buildings and the desolate landscape exude misery. The handheld camera and sparse lighting underline the darkness of it all. It is a difficult film to watch and there is little payoff. Cinema of this sort is frustrating and I often wonder about the point of continuing to make such films. Because on the one hand, there is nothing in Godless that we haven’t seen before in other depressing works from the same region. Corruption and destruction of society have been around for decades. But on the other hand, the film commands attention at all times. The way it refuses to move away from the misery is so unapologetic and rigid that it almost justifies the bleakness. A large part of its success should also be credited to Irena Ivanova, who approaches her role with commitment and complete lack of vanity. She grounds her character in reality even though her actions are deplorable, and by bravely going as far as she does, she lands the film’s central question: how moral can a person even afford to be in such bleak circumstances?