IT’S 1979 in Sofia, Bulgaria. Boryana (Irmena Chichikova) lives with her husband and mother in a cramped apartment, consumed by her desire to leave the Soviet country for the West. In her rare moments of privacy, she indulges in a contraband bottle of Coke, cigarettes (lit with a novelty Statue of Liberty lighter), and (unbeknownst to her husband) old-fashioned birth control.
But despite her best efforts, Boryana becomes pregnant. She’s now trapped not just by the state and her Stalin-loving, ever-disapproving mother, but by her own body.
Nine months later, she gives birth to a healthy baby girl—who has no belly button. The child, Viktoria, is instantly hailed as a national miracle and turned into a symbol of Soviet strength and potential, all but crushing any chance Boryana had of leaving the country. And by age nine, Viktoria is a little tyrant, spoiled by the Socialist head of state. Her grandmother couldn’t be prouder. Boryana makes no effort to conceal her disgust. But with communism’s collapse in 1989, family dynamics shift once more.
Writer/director Maya Vitkova’s debut premiered at Sundance in 2014, the first Bulgarian film to do so, and Vitkova captures the private moments of women that are rarely acknowledged, let alone shown in movies: the squicky sounds of Boryana’s abject douching echoing off the bathroom walls; her water breaking and slowly dripping off the hem of her dress; her pregnant body in a bath, blood blooming slowly from between her legs. These scenes are intimate and thoroughly unsensationalized, shot with a reverence sorely missing from most films.
Viktoria’s missing belly button and her Socialist-sponsored pampering is a necessary and well-executed absurdist interlude in what would otherwise be a bleak portrait of domestic strife and intergenerational resentment. Meditative, wry, and intensely unsentimental toward motherhood, Viktoria still ends with a bittersweet message of ambition and reconciliation.