St Petersburg Times:
by Yuriy Humber
If charming or intriguing bete noir patriarchs, like the Godfather in Francis Ford Coppola's trilogy, usually turn up in crime-related movies in Hollywood, in Russia they are often heroes of political melodramas. Instead of gangsters there's the KGB, for the family - the Party, and for ill-gotten glamour there is a luxury of a kind only a political elite can arrange. The new Russian movie "Voditel Dlya Veri" ("A Driver for Vera"), which opened in St. Petersburg last week (see Screens on this page for details) presents a society that should not have existed, in theory anyway, in a communist country: a rich circle of military men having a perfectly hedonistic time of it in Crimea, much in the manner of playboys in jazz age America - cocktail parties on yachts, house servants, and gleaming, jet-black Chaika luxury cars.
The plot of "A Driver for Vera" is remiscent of Nikita Mikhalkov's Oscar-winning "Burnt by the Sun", only it is set 30 years on in the 1960s. Having survived the Stalin-era, Kremlin favourite General Serov (Bogdan Stupka), receives a warning on the grapevine about plots to topple his position. Like a mosquito, the new presidential office of Khrushchev is looking for blood to atone for mistakes of the past, and hence secure its own day. Meanwhile the General has a more personal dilemma to resolve, in that his brash, spoilt daughter Vera, played by Yelena Babenko, has got pregnant, but is unwilling to disclose by whom.
Time to arrange for one happy-go-lucky sergeant Victor (Igor Petrenko) to be transferred from Moscow into the general services of the haughty Vera and to "do all the bidding that you ask of me." To the Vera who imagines herself a prima donna and has a justified complex about her limp, this upstart is initially "a servant" who is told to speak only when spoken to. And what would Vera talk to this pauper sergeant about when she has an abortion to arrange, a drink problem to maintain, and the figure of a spiky, near-psychotic self-destructionist to cut? Naturally, romance ensues.
Were this a simple love-story with the Black Sea, cliffs, a mountain setting, etc., the film would be like the aesthetically-pleasing but empty "Captain Corelli's Mandolin" of Nicholas Cage-Penelope Cruz shame. Luckily, director and screen-writer Pavel Chukhrai does not leave out the politics, and the story cleverly plays on the informant atmosphere of the age: the constant and unpredictable sniping of the secret services into which Victor is reluctantly drawn, the young sergeant's ambitions to make it in the ranks, and his choices in love.
As soon as an aide to the General, the slippery KGB agent Savelyev (Andrei Panin) rolls up sleeves as a Machiavellian master of fates, promising a place in Moscow's top military academy for Victor, the temper of all main characters start to fluctuate, jealousies for Victor's love between the General's daughter and the maid heighten to a near-suicide, and the palatial ease of the General's life is emotionally, politically, and literally shattered.
Unfortunately, the complexities of the relationships depicted in "A Driver for Vera" are not always ambiguous for the right reasons. It is one of the film's few failings that the sergeant's emotions and real motives are lost in the sandy dunes of Petrenko's pretty-boy face and eyes. Playing the energetic, happy naif, forcing a smile through times when there could be tears works only to a point. And beyond that, there need to be tears, or some animation at least to indicate Victor's mood, clarify his sentiments towards the General's daughter, explain his violent reaction to the maid's teasing in the manner of a Neanderthal grab-and-shag on the bunk beds...and certainly, to justify an ending so shattering. Victor's last words are already infamous in the movie world, and verge on the ridiculous.
In contrast, the temperamental swings and swagger of Vera are particularly well kept-up throughout the film by Babenko. From the hugging of a teddy in moments of despair, to the raging demolition of the furniture, or the Hitchcock-esque suspense as Vera waves scissors in front of her abdomen mulling over abortion plans, Babenko keeps the character believable, engaging, and open to sympathy.
Chukhrai may indeed have been thinking of Mikhalkov's film and its success abroad when writing and planning "A Driver for Vera". The bitter, tragic theme of the Soviet state's whimsical nature, is added to with mellifluous tunes, lush, panning shots of Crimean poppy fields, narrow town avenues, and authentically reproduced conditions of '60s Soviet life. The film's lens looks wide and gazes critical. And with just such lenses in favor at the Academy, "A Driver for Vera"'s tally of a Golden Rose awards from Russian movie-fest Kinotavre may yet be improved on.
News source: www.times.spb.ru
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