Clocking in at a hefty 155 minutes, a film about Bulgaria's transition from Communism to capitalist democracy might in principle be a tough sell outside the former Soviet Union. But Maya Vitkova's Viktoria, a handsome, formally adventurous family saga, tells that tale through a powerful maternal melodrama spanning three generations of implacable women bound by blood, spilled milk and the tumult of a world in transition. There's news footage to help out with the latter, but otherwise, expect the real to flow in and out of a boldly visceral fairy tale that would blanch the cheeks of the Brothers Grimm.
For starters, the titular heroine arrives without an umbilical cord. This surrealist flourish and others tell you as much as you need to know about whether Viktoria (played as a child and then as young woman by the director's sloe-eyed nieces, Daria and Kalina Vitkova) is loved and wanted by her beautiful but haggard mother, Boryana (Irmena Chichikova), who longs to exchange her everyday misery for the faraway romance of Venice. But the baby's congenital defect makes great political capital for Bulgarian dictator Todor Zhivkov (Georgi Spasov), who elbows aside the girl's kindly but conformist father (Dimo Dimov) and commandeers her to be his pampered pet, turning her into a helium-voiced, attention-seeking bully as she grows up. When Zhivkov himself is shoved aside by the fall of the Soviet regime in 1989, Viktoria is left to the less than tender mercies of her icy mother. Disillusioned by the economic chaos of post-Soviet Sofia and the death of her dreams of escape, Boryana shows her grown daughter the same cruelty and indifference she apparently suffered at the hands of her own mother (Mariana Krumova), a devout Party hack who has retreated into dour silence.
Viktoria is presented as based on a true story and dedicated to the director's mother. So there may be autobiography here, though I'd be surprised if Vitkova was actually the hapless little Bulgarian girl who grew up lumbered with the moniker Socialist Baby of the Decade. Either way she has a lot of mordantly absurdist fun with the dafter rituals of state propaganda, to say nothing of socialist-realist filmmaking: Poor Viktoria can hardly blink, let alone give talentless piano recitals, without attracting a round of hand-clapping from fervent sycophants.
What interests Vitkova, though, is the ways in which public corruption seeps into the most intimate corners of domestic life. She uses a different film language for each: The triumphalist bombast of Bulgarian Sovietism, with its blaring soundtrack, gives way to (rather too many) long, slow, silent takes of this beleaguered family, hemmed in by long-simmering rage and resentment and by unfulfilled dreams of freedom and plenty in a Coca-Cola paradise that never comes. Small wonder that spilled blood and curdled milk become the movie's defining metaphors, or that Viktoria comes to us as a sad hybrid of Snow White and Little Red Riding Hood.
The film's calm, assured interplay between real and surreal strands its heroine between a loveless home and the arid favoritism of a powerful man. You'll have to see Viktoria to find out whether she or her elders cling to their prison, come to terms, or fly the coop. I will say only that a postcard is involved, but no hugs.