Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Sundance ’16: A Good Wife

To Serbia’s credit, they ousted Slobodan Milosevic on their own, unprompted. However, there is still a general defensiveness whenever people ask questions about the 1990s. This is particularly true in the case of Milena’s husband Vlada. She is about to discover why, but it is not clear she can handle the truth in Serbian actress Mirjana Karanovic’s directorial debut, A Good Wife, which screens during the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.

Vlada is a prosperous contractor, so obviously he has no scruples whatsoever. Nevertheless, Milena was able to maintain a willful blindness, despite Vlada’s sneering curses at the war crimes investigators on the evening news. One day she comes across an old VHS tape while cleaning and watches just enough to see too much. She tries to ignore her new reality, but when the drunkard Dejan, Vlada’s junior paramilitary colleague, starts making veiled threats of blackmail, it is impossible for Milena to live in denial.

Milena also has her own issues, like her recently discovered tumor. The parallels between Milena’s breast cancer and Serbia’s cancerous history are impossible to miss, but Karanovic shows a good sense of restraint, resisting the urge to drive the point home with a pile-driver. If you can’t get it from her matter of fact approach, you never will, but the film never feelsl lectury or contrived.

A Good Wife is really a slow burn that gives the others issues in Milena’s life nearly equal weight as her struggles with Vlada’s war crimes (though they arguably all interrelated). If you are lucky, you will recognize Karanovic from Darko Lungulov’s wonderfully wise and world weary romantic comedy Here and There. Yet, in many ways A Good Wife is the antithesis to that film, which clearly implies everyday Serbs deserve a return to normalcy and a break from the international guilt trips. Not so fast say Karanovic and co-screenwriters Lungulov and Stevan Filipovic, arguing if Serbia does not face up to its not-so-distant past, it will continue to fester and metastasize.

Karanovic also set herself up with the sort of role that is a perfect awards vehicle, which she duly knocks out of the park. Karanovic and company do not merely present a simplistic conflict between doing the right thing and protecting a comfortable life. We also see all the small, possibly more pernicious little compromises she makes just to get through the day.

A Good Wife and Here and There are about as far apart as two Serbian films can get, but they both showcase Karanovic’s warm yet sophisticated screen presence. It is a quiet, patient film, but it directly challenges Serbs to look inside the dark corners of their national psyche. Frankly, she is pretty darn gutsy on both sides of the lens. Respectfully recommended for international audiences and rather more forcefully so for those in Srpska and Serbia, A Good Wife screens again tonight (1/26), tomorrow (1/27), Friday (1/29), and Saturday (1/30) as part of this year’s Sundance, in Park City.