Movie review: Driver for Vera (2004) Ukraine
Learning about Russia and Ukraine is made easier by watching movies made there. With English subtitles not only do you have the ease of following the plot, but you truly get a sense of each personality played by the characters. Not to mention the fun of listening to common words and expressions by Russian speakers.
Those of us who travel so freely to Sevastopol or anywhere in Crimea today often don’t realize that in those days that Sevastopol was a “secret” and closed city to which even Soviet citizens needed KGB vetting and special permits to visit.
The use of Western rock and roll as a form of cultural rebellion becomes evident fairly quickly in the film, provided that you understand that such was often banned during periods of Soviet rule, depending on which dictator was in power at the time.
In the story General Serov hires Viktor, a cadet from the Kremlin Guard to work as his private chauffeur. Viktor chauffeurs the General’s disabled daughter Vera. Viktor is oblivious to the hidden agenda of the KGB agent Saveliev, who manipulates everyone behind the scenes.
Some cultural observations:
If you didn’t know that there was a long running rivalry between the Army and KGB, it is certainly evident in this movie. The presence of a “political officer” (KGB) at the side of every ranking Army official made it risky to give orders to units, etc. Although a commander might outrank his KGB sidekick, often the KGB officer called the shots which was fine if all went well, but any failure fell on the shoulders of the Army commander no matter who gave the original order.
In one scene young Viktor pulls his car (I want that car!!!) out of it’s garage to be washed and shined. The camera focuses for a moment on the logo of the model found on the hubcaps. That’s a great moment to study the large differences between Russian Cyrillic in print or in cursive. As often the case, this one is a mixture of the two, making it confusing for those who learn only printed letters to understand. That is exactly why I harp on learning cursive Russian at the same time, because it is so different. Just in case you’re wondering, the logo reveals that the car is a ZIM.
The prominence of abortion as the most common form of birth control is also an important part of the story. Soviet condoms were notoriously unreliable and whether true or not, rumours that the CIA had produced hundreds of tiny holes in Western brand condoms headed for the Soviet states (and the difficulty in obtaining western condoms in the first place) made birth control difficult at best.
Nikita Khrushchev was in power and it was a time known in the Soviet Union as “the thaw” when Khrushchev as undoing the terror of the Stalin decades. Khrushchev was no angel himself, but he took a better course after Stalin. The thaw for Soviet citizens would end when the boring and unimaginative Leonid Brezhnev managed to topple Khrushchev in 1964.
Hats off to the camera and production techs for their photography. With YouTube one may not appreciate fully the use of the scenes of the Crimea countryside and the Black Sea, but on a big screen this movie comes to life!
The ending is a little unrealistic however, all in all we give it a thumbs up. The movie begins across the street from Moscow State University’s main campus in Sparrow Hills above Moscow. You’ll see several wedding couples in the background as the opening scene is shot from an overlook area from where lots of couples come after the wedding to make photos with the city of Moscow laid out in a panoramic view in the Valley below.
The next scenes are inside the kremlin, with an entry from Red Square’s “Saviour Gate” and then the characters are off to Crimea. With the subtitles, its easy to follow along and practice recognition of Russian language patterns at the same time.
Viewing the film on YouTube is easy. Just click on the first episode and when it ends the next episode (there are 11) is usually loaded next in line.
The entertainment magazine Variety referred to the film as “more off-putting than enthralling” with the opinion that it lacked a main character that a viewer could identify with. That is pure bull crap, pardon my French.
Variety labeled the film as one of poor acting from the cast of characters. Frankly, the characters are much like what the Soviet Union was like in the 1960’s, even the cook in the kitchen. The film was Ukraine’s submission to the 77th Academy Awards for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, but it was disqualified by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences before formal review process having ruled that too much of the film’s production was Russian-based, making the film ineligible as a candidate for Ukraine. What the Academy failed to understand at the time was that this is a very good representation of Ukraine at the time, showing how “things Russian” dominated that region at the time. Frankly speaking, the film was a bullseye on target culturally. There was just no one at the Academy with sufficient intelligence to understand that reality.