Relief Without Belief

in 32nd Warsaw International Film Festival

by Jan Schulz-Ojala

Godless – the FIPRESCI Winner of the Warsaw Film Fest 2016

Good debut films, by definition, are believed to be the prerogative of promising beginners. Masterpieces, on the other hand, are the flawless creations of experienced filmmakers. So, can a debut be also a masterpiece? Quite seldom, but yes, it can.

With Godless (Bezbog), the young Bulgarian director Ralitza Petrova presents a stunningly accomplished work. Following the fateful path of a young female hero in present-day Eastern Europe, the film aims at provoking deep reflections on responsibility and guilt, self-esteem and faith, but without lecturing its audience at any time. Everything evolves tragically, step by step, and with a minimum of dialogue until the painfully bright final scene.

Gana (Irena Ivanova’s acting debut) works in a small town as a communal care-giver for very old people, living alone in socialist-style high-rise buildings. Addicted to morphine, which she takes from the healthcare service stocks, she also steals her patients’ ID cards, a highly valued commodity by the local money laundering mafia. But after one of her patients is killed by her boyfriend and accomplice Aleko (Ventzislav Konstantinov), the conscience of the apathetic young nurse slowly begins to awake.

Everything in this narrative seems to lead to a typically noisy Eastern European “Mafiosi” thriller, and one is sure to find in Godless the ugly big gangster family, featuring various types of criminals, corrupt policemen and judges. But the film, shot in back-breaking narrow 4:3 aspect ratio and mostly in cold blue-grey tones, does not rely on the typical for the genre suspense. It is Gana’s devastated soul, which the story reveals in quiet undertones, her vague attempts to find relief in a world without belief.

Only two gunshots are heard in Godless, and do not even seem connected to the main story, but are just part of the soundscape in this totally rotten social community. Implosions, not explosions, matter here – and so, thanks to her growing closeness to Yoan (Ivan Nalbantov), one of her patients, who leads a choir, Gana gets a glimpse of another possibility for surviving. Yoan, a former prisoner from the communist times, is a fearless and self-confident man, and his example inspires Gana to undertake her ultimate and dangerous, but very courageous act. Indeed, why waste your life dealing with consequences, if there is only one right path to take?

So, on the backdrop of total hopelessness, something like hope arises in this exceptional film, awarded in Locarno and Sarajewo earlier this year. And then, at the end – by the way, far from happy – some strange guy, let’s call him God, or maybe a good-humored Devil, turns around the corner.

Jan Schulz-Ojala works as film-editor for the Berlin based newspaper „Der Tagesspiegel“.


Edited by Christina Stojanova