Director: Pavel Chukhraj
Writer: Pavel Chukhraj
Stars: Igor Petrenko, Elena Babenko,Bogdan Stupka
Set in the Crimea in the early 1960s, A Driver for Vera follows the personal and political dilemmas of a prominent Soviet general (Bogdan Stupka), his handicapped daughter Vera (Elena Babenko), and their driver Viktor (Igor' Petrenko). The film received the largest number of prizes at last year's Kinotavr festival including the prestigious Golden Rose award and the awards for best director, screenplay, and cameraman. The film was also Ukraine's official nominee in the "Best Foreign Movie" category for the Academy Awards in March 2005. Its plot is often compared by critics to Nikita Mikhalkov's Oscar-winning Burnt by the Sun (1994) and Ivan Dykhovichnyi's Moscow Parade (1992). ...
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.
Reviewed by Gerald McCausland©2005 in KinoKultura