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Pavel Chukhrai, A Driver for Vera [Voditel' dlia Very] (2004)

reviewed by Gerald McCausland©2005

 

Moscow. 1962. A young Soviet Army sergeant looks into the camera and smiles. He seems to be addressing us, the viewers.  The illusion is fleeting, however, as it turns out that the camera he is smiling into is that of a photographer whom the soldier has hired to photograph him as he poses in dress uniform alongside the polished black car that, as we soon learn, is his constant companion in service.  The narcissism is inoffensive and even charming in context.  The scenery and music suggest a holiday mood and the soldier’s face exudes the enthusiasm of a young man who can still look into the future with hope and excitement.  Life is good, and thus beautiful. Or, perhaps, it is the other way around.

The sergeant’s name is Viktor.  He is soon to be transferred from Moscow to the Crimea at the request of General Serov, whom he will officially serve.  Yet it quickly turns out that his primary function is to be the servant, supervisor, spy, and potential suitor of the General’s headstrong and prickly daughter, Vera.  The relationship between Viktor and Vera develops along with two other plot lines already in progress: Vera is pregnant by a man she hardly knows, and her father has become a pawn in an increasingly brutal power struggle involving the command staff of the armed forces and the KGB.  A fellow “servant,” the buxom young housekeeper Lida, spares no effort to turn the potential romantic couple into a triangle, while the General’s adjutant, Captain Savel'ev, quickly recruits Viktor to inform on Serov for the KGB, Savel'ev’s true master.  While the plot is not overly complex, the passions and ambitions of these five characters make for an interesting and rich drama in which dilemmas of personal responsibility, loyalty, and ethics are resolved in sometimes surprising ways.  

      

Despite this attention to political history and human character, a common concern in Pavel Chukhrai’s films, the central thematic glue that holds this new film together is the theme of beauty in all of its many manifestations.  As Viktor takes in the sights of his new environment, the cinematography dwells on the stunningly beautiful seaside scenery of the coast and the lightly clad young women who walk along the town streets, both of which leave our young hero in wordless amazement.  All the more striking is the expression of surprise and disgust that appears on his face at the sight of Vera’s physical disability.  A crippling childhood illness has left Vera severely lame, able to walk only with great difficulty.  For young Viktor, and one might suspect for Pavel Chukhrai, beauty and its opposite are not simply surface attributes of the physical world.  They go to the core of human existence and inform our attitudes towards politics and morality, or, in this case, towards Russia and the contemporary course of Russian cinema.  

                                                              

The characters in the film return again and again to the aesthetic theme in the most varied ways.  Viktor has an almost maniacal urge to wash and polish his car, as if the most minor smudge might permanently disfigure his service record.  Admiration of the seascape leads to one of Viktor’s early attempts to engage Vera in discussion, in this case about his childhood conviction that the Soviet Union had the most beautiful of everything, from natural wonders to women.  Although Viktor overcomes his early reaction to Vera’s imperfect body, his flirtation with Lida continues, and the film refuses to cast the physical attractiveness of a young woman in a negative light by contrast to a purportedly more noble feeling that overlooks ugliness.  This does not mean that the aesthetic is limited to the surface appearances of the material world.  Several references in the film establish an association between ugliness and human suffering: the strange conversation between Vera and her aunt seems to have no other purpose than to link the ugliness of alcoholism with the ugliness and absurdity of human suffering.  We come to realize how important Viktor’s childhood experiences are to his adult character when he tells of his suffering in the orphanage into which he was placed after the early death of his mother.  His ambition to secure a comfortable life and career for himself in the Army is less due to personal ambition than to his horror at any possibility of returning to his former life of privation.

Chukhrai’s exposure of the rarefied lifestyle of the Soviet elite is hardly an innovation.  The same theme received cinematic treatment more than a decade before, for example, in Ivan Dykhovichnyi’s 1992 film Moscow Parade [Prorva].  Yet where Dykhovichnyi seemed to be concerned with the contrast between the falsity of surface glitter and high culture, on the one hand, and the grotesque depravity of the humanity that maintained it, on the other, Chukhrai sets up no such clear correlation.  While he makes no attempt to deny or rationalize the evil nature of the political system that will bring Serov and his household to grief, he does not burden the film’s characters with the original sin of being born in the Soviet Union.  We are clearly supposed to like and accept these characters as genuine heroes.  Accordingly, the film does not have the kind of gritty texture characteristic of Moscow Parade and other such muckraking films from the first post-Soviet decade.  By making Viktor an orphan, Chukhrai has given him the perfect biography for the main hero of this film.  An orphan does not have parents by whom he might be burdened with any hereditary guilt.  An orphan is pure victim, never a victimizer.  

              

This draws attention to the film’s biggest weakness.  The most serious critiques of the film have focused upon the degree to which the film’s characters lack in psychological verisimilitude.  Viktor seems too innocent, too upright, and too morally pure.  Savel'ev is too evil and Lida too outrageously sexual.  Even more striking is the lack of sufficient motivation for Lida’s one truly despicable deed and Savel'ev’s two quite incomprehensible acts of nobility.  Yet most viewers do not hold this against the film or its director, certainly not the viewers on the jury at the 2004 Kinotavr Festival in Sochi, at which the film won for Best Screenplay as well as Best Director.  Most audiences seem ready to accept the plot and heroes of A Driver for Vera, perhaps for the same reasons that most Russians who remember 1962 prefer to remember the height of the Khrushchev Thaw rather than the continuing menace of an arbitrary and all-powerful secret police.  Chukhrai maintains us at a distance from his characters’ deep psychological makeup, and we, thus, never fully understand any of them.  All of them, including Viktor, prove to be complex and contradictory.  While a basically decent man who feels genuine remorse for the tragedy that haunts him, General Serov is nevertheless still capable of treating human beings as simple objects to be managed, as he does when he asks his friend to give him his driver.  We never learn the reasons for Vera’s both aggressive and needy personality.  Is it due to her physical deformity or is she just spoilt rotten?  Finally, Viktor is not so innocent a victim. Although falsely accused twice, he himself incriminates Lida with a blatant lie and, moreover, swears on his mother’s memory to the truth of the lie.  Perhaps the orphanage has also left him unburdened by any sense of debt or loyalty to his parents.  Is this perhaps why he agrees to inform on the General, giving but token resistance to Savel'ev’s orders?

Nevertheless, the striving for a good life of beauty and without suffering seems to redeem humanity in the end.  Despite the tragic turn of events, there still remains a reservoir of human compassion to which Viktor can turn in a moment of final desperation.  In its celebration of natural beauty, its upbeat and international musical track, and its appealing performers, the very form of the film seems to be a confession of hope in humanity.  To wallow in chernukha would, after all, amount to a return to the orphanage. 

Gerald McCausland, University of Pittsburgh


A Driver for Vera (Russia, 2004)

Color, 105 min.

Director: Pavel Chukhrai

Script: Pavel Chukhrai

Camera: Igor' Klebanov

Design: Ol'ga Kravchenia

Music: Eduard Artem'ev

Cast: Igor' Petrenko, Alena Babenko, Bogdan Stupka, Andrei Panin, Ekaterina Iudina

Producer: Mikhail Zil'berman

Executive Producers: Igor' Tolstunov and Aleksandr Rodnianskii

Production: “Pervyi kanal”; Production Company of Igor' Tolstunov


Pavel Chukhrai, A Driver for Vera [Voditel' dlia Very] (2004)

reviewed by Gerald McCausland©2005

6/1/05