“Ivan & Ivana” follows the roller-coaster fortunes of a real-life Serbian couple moving up from destitution amid the ruins of Kosovo to affluence on the sunny streets of San Diego. The titular subjects display an amazing openness toward helmer Jeff Silva (obviously a good friend) and toward the camera as witness, granting viewers an unfiltered look at the U.S. economic meltdown and its impact on a relationship from a neo-American point of view. Recalling the surreal culture shock of Werner Herzog’s displaced-person drama “Stroszek,” albeit on a lighter, nonfictional note, Silva’s docu warrants limited theatrical release.
A short prologue shot in 2000 introduces the bombed-out devastation of Kosovo, where Ivan, a sometime musician, plays the Balkan blues. The film then jumps ahead six years to find Ivan and wife Ivana in Southern California, where she works as a real-estate broker, riding the housing bubble as he tags along for the ride. They speak with remarkable candor of their love, hopes and fears, most of the latter crystallizing around the $1.5 million debt their home-owning, house-flipping, sportscar-driving lifestyle has accrued. Later segments trace their waning prosperity as the bubble bursts.
Ivana, as the active principal alone responsible for earning enough to keep their heads above water, proves less inclined to question their choices, though she seems uneasy at the thought they might have become “real Americans” by winding up “in debt up to their eyeballs.” Ivan, on the other hand, with no real work or way of interacting with others in the community except as a weird adjunct to his busy, Westernized wife, feels increasingly alienated, seeking solace in drugs.
In many ways, “Ivan & Ivana” feels like a diary film, albeit one focused not on the filmmaker, whose presence is strongly implied but never shown, but rather on its subjects, driven to explain themselves well beyond the diffident questions Silva poses. Yet if Ivan and Ivana control the discourse, Silva determines the mood through mise-en-scene, intercutting between them as their marriage disintegrates. Their neat, eternally sunlit suburban neighborhood increasingly counterpoints Ivan’s downward spiral and Ivana’s cynical adoption of American values as potential buyers traipse through their house.