I’d like to institute a new rule: if you’re a first-time director, you get 90 minutes for your debut film. If you have previous experience with short films, commercials, and/or music videos, then you maybe get 100. The problem is that a lot of first-time directors are so obsessed with being important that they forget that first, they have to be good. In my experience, when a movie by a first-time director clocks in at over two hours, it means that they either had too many ideas and couldn’t organize them properly or too few and compensated with glacial pacing and miasmic introspection.
Maya Vitkova’s Viktoria (2014) falls into the second of these two categories. Clocking in at an absurd two and a half hours, it aims for the scope of lavish historical/allegorical epics like Volker Schlöndorff’s The Tin Drum (1979) and Emir Kusturica’s Underground (1995), while only having enough material for maybe a tight, clean 30 minutes. Ostensibly a metaphor for Bulgaria’s transition into and out of a Communist government, it focuses on three symbolic women in a single family: a mute crone of a grandmother; a cruel, selfish mother who tries to abort all of her pregnancies; and Viktoria, an infant daughter born without an umbilical cord or bellybutton who becomes a symbol of the Bulgarian Communist government.
The most interesting scenes involve Viktoria’s birth and pampered childhood—the government’s attempts to politicize her birth are hilarious and preposterous in the right ways (“This proves that Communist Bulgaria no longer needs an umbilical cord!”) and her spoiled antics such as assaulting and humiliating her classmates with impunity are equally chilling. But when the Bulgarian Communist government collapses and Viktoria is forced to confront the real world, the film trips over its feet and fails to get back up. No amount of surreal imagery, painterly frame compositions of Viktoria weeping in the rain, or feminist reclamations of the female body—the women spend almost as much time naked and/or bleeding as they do wearing clothes and/or not bleeding—can save it from its own ponderous lethargy.
One of the biggest problems is that Vitkova muddles her symbols—how can we understand Viktoria as embodying Communist Bulgaria when she outlives it? Does she represent its lingering legacy as I’m sure the grandmother represents the legacy of pre-Communist Bulgaria? How can that be if she wasn’t born until after its fall? And where does that leave the mother? As the disenfranchised Bulgarian lumpenproletariat? This is the problem with allegorical filmmaking: if certain things are demarcated as specific symbols, then everything must be likewise demarcated. Such symbols can’t exist in a vacuum or they become meaningless. Or, in the case of Viktoria, pointless.