AFI Fest ’19 Review: A Homecoming for “Ivana the Terrible” Leads to a Wonderful Comedy

There is no small amount of irony in ”Ivana the Terrible” that no later than the star of the title (Ivana Mladenovic) arrives back in her hometown of Kladovo in Serbia, she is being courted to serve as the face of the village on the eve of its annual festival, thought to have a successful career in the film business after fleeing for Romania 15 years earlier. While no one there knows of her work, the act alone of leaving is celebrated amongst her community who probably wished they could’ve done the same, but for Ivana, a return can only be seen as a source of great shame, moving back in with her parents. Still, she is an ideal reflection of Kladovo, where the inferiority complex runs deep sitting outside the European Union across the Danube from Bucharest, and in her current state, paralyzed by self-doubt about her future prospects, she has all the time in the world to help with the festivities.

Just as Mladenovic finds the poetry in her plight, there is some also in how “Ivana the Terrible” may be threatened to be overshadowed by the wild story behind its making, in which the writer/director turned her own malaise into a wonderful second feature, turning her personal travails into a comedy and getting all the actual people from her real hometown, including her parents and the local government officials, into the act. However, that can’t ever happen entirely when the narrative unfolding onscreen is so rich, with Ivana, a charmingly clumsy screen presence can be seen running into things running into things both physically and psychological with no help offered by those closest to her, whether it’s her father telling her bluntly, “Your film sucks – sorry to break it to you,” or being offered advice by a family friend in the medical profession like “If you eat a bit [of dairy], your [lactose intolerance] would disappear.”

While others have used their quarter life crisis for creative inspiration before – it would be easy, but not necessarily accurate, to call “Ivana the Terrible” as a Serbian “Tiny Furniture” – Mladenovic shows ambition both behind the camera and in front of it, as Ivana wonders what role she has played in the obstacles she faces, starting a relationship with a guy at least 10 years younger than she is named Nikola, which surely would be frowned upon by her parents if they were to find out, and inviting her ex-boyfriend Andrei, an avant-garde theremin musician, to perform at the festival, bringing along his girlfriend (the late Anca Pop) who gradually drives her mad. You know neither of these guys is the answer to her problems, yet the cultural conditioning towards marriage that she had become less conscious of after living abroad starts working it’s way back into her head the longer her stay in Kladovo, and Mladenovic explores in subtle yet broader ways how some of the traditions of Serbia hold it back while others provide a stability and comfort she craves.

Even as “Ivana the Terrible” works as a self-examination, there’s a refreshing lack of myopia and navel-gazing throughout, a generosity that can be seen in how everyone onscreen is given at least a moment, if not more, to shine, even if it’s in the service of knocking Ivana down a peg, and it’s telling that Mladenovic gives her ex-boyfriend one of the most cogent observations in the film by explaining that “It’s important to realize the family in your head is not your family, it’s what you think of them.” That clarity of perspective may elude Ivana for much of the film, but it’s sharply observed by Mladenovic and as much as the character she plays tries to get out of her own head, it’s truly a delight to spend an hour-and-a-half inside the mind of the actress/writer/director who has given her so much to think about.

“Ivana the Terrible” will screen once more at AFI Fest on November 19th at 4:45 pm at the TCL Chinese.