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The fourth feature film of Janez Burger starts with a long close-up shot of an eye. As the camera slowly pulls away we can see a woman’s face, full of pain and agony. She is in labour, giving birth to the titular baby Ivan, the illegitimate son of a married businessman and tycoon Rok (Matjaž Tribušon). But this story is not about Ivan, as Burger makes it clear from the very beginning. The rock of this film is Mara, a young single mother struggling with Rok’s disappearance, domestic violence and other harsh challenges of a woman taking her first independent steps into adulthood and parenthood. However, regardless of Mara being a female protagonist unlike anything Slovenian film has never seen before, a real heroine and a true force of nature that single-handedly makes this film work, turns out to be the actress portraying her. Maruša Majer embraces and embodies her complicated character with such ferocity and conviction that she makes us overlook most of film’s weaknesses, as well as plot directions too specific and peculiar to pass as fully believable.
The film tries to reflect current social and political atmosphere in post-transitional Slovenia. Its cold colour palette gives us a feeling of disconnection and alienation in a world where wealth and power became more important than basic human connection and wellbeing of our children. A hand-held camera only furthers our understanding of unstable, uncertain and precarious reality. And indeed, Mara and Ivan’s future looks sad and horrifying for a better part of the film, just as our own future is in these times of bad banks, financial oases, tycoons, relentless austerity measures and neoliberal politics. And yet, there are parts in a way the story unfolds where Mara’s decisions do not resonate well, no matter how much we want to understand and empathize with her.
This film is ground-breaking in a way that it completely turns around the Slovenian, let it be film or literary, portrayal of a mother. Mara is not a pathologically devoted, selfless and self-sacrificing “Cankar” mother who is voluntarily repressing her womanhood, her sense of self even, while tending to her new-born child. Instead she is irresponsible, neglectful, too immersed into her love troubles and too easily manipulated by her criminal and selfish lover/father figure. She is a real, three-dimensional woman. With curves, a post-pregnancy belly and breasts that produce milk – something the film is not afraid to show up close. She is also selfish and unable to see what is best for her child. All that changes, though, when she decides to put matters into her own hands, to take control of her own destiny by embarking into the future of single motherhood alone, without a man in her life. This ending is important and elevating, especially in times where intact nuclear families and family values are being promoted as the new norm. However, her emancipation does not come soon enough and it is in those moments that script’s weaknesses become most apparent. Far from implying that men cannot write deep and convincing women characters, but there is a constant and easily detectable thread of three men, and only one woman bringing this story to life. There are scenes, such as her all too quick and easy-to-forgive embrace of a lover who got her brutally beaten up only days prior; and finally, her leaving her new-born baby in the backseat of a car. Dangerous and reckless parents are a reality, no doubt, and I would accept this turn of events if this was also the case with her – if she was simply a bad and unfit mother. She was not, though. She left her baby for one reason and one reason alone: a guy she respected, admired and loved told her to. She acted against her instinct, against her impulses, against her reason, for a guy who was promising her a better future. Are we really to believe we, women, are so easily sweet talked and manipulated into child abandonment? So easily persuaded into denying our child a future? Are we to believe we are so incapable of saying no, even when the thing we are asked to do goes against our core morals, against everything we stand for and believe in? Which brings me back to male writers trying to capture female perspective – and not getting it quite right.
Still, compared to what we are used to seeing in Slovenian film, Ivan feels like a breath of fresh air. Despite a few questionable decisions, this is Burger’s most mature film yet, as well as one of his most complex and ambitious ones. A shocking scene of a real-life birth also speaks volumes about how demanding this film was, production-wise. As for Maruša Majer, her role of Mara will undoubtedly go down as one of the best, most transcendent and magnetic performances in the history of Slovenian cinema. To some extent, this film also works as a perfect complementation to last year’s Nightlife (Damjan Kozole, 2016), as both films deal with women trying to clean the mess they are in because of men in their lives. And if we believe that films in a way reflect the world we live in, our society and culture, this two films without a doubt pose an interesting question: what is wrong with Slovenian men who put women in such impossible positions? And, perhaps even more relevant, what is wrong with Slovenian women who choose such conflicting and morally questionable partners?