Tereza sleeps alone in bed near the opening of “Tereza37,” Danilo Serbedzija’s placidly paced Croatian drama with edges both witty and shrewdly dark. It’s an image that stands as a fitting visual foreword to Serbedzija’s film, as Tereza is often solitary at home despite being married; her husband is regularly absent, gone out to the sea frequently on his unspecified aquatic job. Then the scene’s significance grows as Tereza rolls over, revealing her blood-soaked undergarments and sheets that Serbedzija’s matter-of-fact camera captures with unsentimental directness. Soon after she cleans it all up in a series of routine, Jeanne Dielman-esque moves, we realize that Tereza just had her fourth miscarriage, but wants to keep trying to conceive in a desperate pursuit of motherhood.
Perceptively written by Croatia’s prolific screen and stage actress Lana Barić — she also plays the titular character here with a thoughtful and accessible nonchalance — Serbedzija’s movie follows Tereza and her tireless quest throughout Split, a major city located on the Adriatic coast. On paper, the 37-year-old seems to possess quite a few everyday blessings that should lead to a fulfilling life: an artistic job at a theater company, a decent enough marriage with Marko (Leon Lucev), a close relationship with her feisty sister Renata (a terrific Ivana Roscic), a fun best friend she goes out to drinking and dancing with and a nicely appointed, sun-filled apartment.
But then again, nothing is quite as it seems and what really surrounds Tereza is an existence that feels limited and dead-end in its scope. Accordingly, we soon learn that her bestie is about to leave Split for Berlin with her new boyfriend, her husband is careless and unsympathetic, and her job can be a drag. To make matters worse, outmoded male-centric norms habitually cast a vast shadow over her life while she is already burdened by her heartbreaking series of miscarriages. So what’s Tereza to do if not shake things up a bit? Enter the jokey advice of her blithe gynecologist on the heels of Tereza’s latest unsuccessful pregnancy. “Why don’t you try it with other men,” she cheekily says, suggesting that Tereza might not be genetically compatible with her husband. Fed up and clearly a little bored, Tereza accepts this unorthodox and unserious recommendation with a shrug.
The script navigates Tereza’s risky endeavor with an astute eye, often reminding the viewer of her culture’s deeply rooted misogyny that cripples her life in spite of her rebellious act of sexual independence. In that regard, even the sweetest and most organic of her extramarital affairs — with the kind neighbor Nikola (a charismatic Dragan Micanovic), the first suitor Tereza pursues after meeting him on her commute one day — turns a little sour once Tereza decides to move on and Nikola can’t take a hint. We also witness her luck wearing thin in nightclubs and cafes after a number of failed pregnancy attempts, eventually putting her at violent odds with the grotesquely predatory Vedran (Goran Markovic) in a devastating scene. Always in synch with Tereza’s psyche, Serbedzija and cinematographer Mirko Pivcevic’s daring lens aptly emphasizes the young woman’s crippling humiliation during these tough couple of minutes.
Elsewhere in the film, minor female-on-female transgressions don’t escape the film’s gaze, reflecting a dimension of macho societies many films ignore. With a critical eye and a dose of subtle deadpan humor, Barić and Serbedzija accordingly fashion episodic snippets where women harmlessly gossip behind each other’s backs or enviously gush over another’s fancy purse or good physical shape.
Augmenting screenwriter Barić’s feminine sharpness on the page is costume designer Zeljka Franulovic’s sartorial contribution to the story that amusingly differentiates Tereza’s under-the-radar, even matronly silhouettes — modest below-the-knee A-line skirts and tucked in t-shirts — from the other women around her. The contrast is particularly played up between Tereza and Renata, who often goes for low cuts and body-conscious shapes, and urges Tereza to invest in sexier clothing. Barić also acknowledges Southeast Europe’s tight-knit familial structures with both sympathy and an analytical attitude, searching for the roots of her society’s deeply entrenched patriarchy in traditional families like the one that raised Tereza and Renata.
Throughout the film, the cinematography remains buttery and bright, comfortingly accentuating the play between light and shadow. It’s remarkable how Serbedzija juxtaposes this peaceful look against Petra Poslek’s symmetrical, purposely suffocating production design, a feeling mirrored by the story’s locations around Split — soulless cookie-cutter buildings that spread across streets and town squares like the identical bellows of an accordion. It’s too bad that “Tereza37” feels a bit indecisive in its last act, struggling to bring Tereza’s tale to a satisfying close. Then again, that ambiguity is perhaps the most suitable path for a character who in the end still seems to be in search of a meaningful journey onward.