The repressed return with a vengeance in “A Good Wife,” a classically styled directorial debut for acclaimed actress-turned-helmer Mirjana Karanovic, who also takes the lead role in this tale of a middle-aged woman in postwar Serbia forced to face several unpleasant truths. Brave on many levels, it may be perceived by some as naive — or, with regard to its political context, simply too little, too late. Karanovic’s reputation and the pic’s femme p.o.v. should see it hitched to further fests, with niche distribution a possibility in sympathetic territories.
Milena (Karanovic) is a nice-looking, 50-ish housewife with a comfortable home in a small Vojvodina suburb, not far from Belgrade. As part of a generation of women in thrall to their husbands, who consider motherhood and homemaking their primary role, Milena feels well off compared to many of her friends. Although hubby Vlada (Boris Isakovic, who recently played a nasty piece of work in the Dutch Oscar submission “The Paradise Suite”) may not be the tenderest or most sensitive man in the world, he is a good provider of material things — and not a skirt chaser, unlike others in his former paramilitary unit. Yet it also saddens her that he is estranged from their eldest daughter Natasha (Hristina Popovic), who works for a human rights NGO in Belgrade.
After a doctor’s appointment confirms something she was trying to ignore — a lump in her breast — Milena embarks on a furious bout of cleaning. She happens upon a videotape from happier times, but to her surprise, it also contains some shocking wartime footage of Vlada’s unit arbitrarily executing bound and frightened Bosnian civilians. Now viewing the world through more alert eyes, Milena must reconsider everything that she once took for granted in her life; as she continues to study her husband and their milieu, a craving for justice subsumes her desire for affection.
Karanovic and her co-screenwriters Stevan Filipovic and Darko Lungulov (who directed Karanovic to great effect in “Here and There”) apply the metaphor of removing a malignancy both to the cancer in Milena’s breast and to the war criminals still extant in Serbian society. The extended opening and closing images of Karanovic’s bare breasts rep courage on her part; so, at a more practical level, does her delving into crimes committed by the paramilitaries.
As a performer, Karanovic has continued to collaborate with filmmakers from other parts of former Yugoslavia after the country’s dissolution. Certain significant roles, such as the raped Bosnian mother in “Grbavica” (also from “A Good Wife” co-producer Jasmila Zbanic) and the Croatian widow in Vinko Bresan’s “Witnesses,” have not endeared her to political elements back in Serbia, though she has been recognized with the Winning Freedom award from the Belgrade-based Maja Marsicevic Tasic Foundation.
As a helmer, Karanovic particularly excels in the most intimate scenes between Milena and Vlada. But there are nonetheless weaknesses in “A Good Wife’s” screenplay, which feels a tad thin where Milena’s children are concerned — particularly on the subject of Natasha’s estrangement from Vlada. It might have profitably explored the kids’ attitudes toward the topic of Serbia’s role in the war, particularly since there appear to be nightly television debates on the topic.
The widescreen lensing of Bosnian d.p. Erol Zubcevic (“Our Everyday Life,” “Tigers”) focuses primarily on the thesps’ faces, and for the most part, they repay the intense scrutiny with subtle performances. Boris Caksiran’s costume design also reveals volumes about the characters, with the donning and eventual removal of a birthday necklace marking a significant change of attitude on Milena’s part.