Glasnost for the Soviet cinema began promisingly with the dramatic release in 1986 of the long-suppressed, controversial films, "Commissar" (1967) and "Theme" (1979), shelved with finality during the Brezhnev era. Still, those pictures were made a long time ago. Would Gorbachev's rhetoric encouraging internal criticism of Soviet life actually be carried out in the newest cinema?
With "Little Vera," a daring 1988 feature from Moscow's Gorky Studio unveiled at the 12th Montreal World Film Festival which wraps up today, glasnost comes storming out of the gate. Even those skeptical about the new artistic freedom in the Soviet Union must concede that "Little Vera," which opens later this year in the Soviet Union and the United States, breaks the rules and crosses all boundaries.
There is casual nudity and several steamy sex scenes, beyond anything before on the Soviet screen. Uniformed Soviet police, buttressed by snarling German shepherds, are photographed in several episodes as the enemy of youth trying to have fun. Official Soviet policy about AIDS is satirized when a student reads aloud from a stodgy government missive warning against "sexual contact with homosexuals, drug addicts, and those who lead a dissipated sexual life."
The sole reference to Marxist ideology is an ironic one, when the bikini-clad protagonist, Vera, lies across her amour's body on the beach and declares, tongue-in-cheek, "We have a common goal: Communism."
However, the most radical element of "Little Vera" is its obstinately pessimistic tone, a total rejection of the mandated Pollyannaish romanticism of traditional Stalin-Khruschev-Brezhnev cinema. Never has there been such a bleak, kitchen-sink look at the daily life of Soviet citizenry. Some viewers may even wish for the return of the halcyon days of happy, politically correct tractor drivers.
Vera (Natalia Negoda) is a tough, coarse 18-year-old residing with her parents in a public housing project in a factory town far south of Moscow. Vera's pathetic father drinks himself sick every day in search of his male self-respect. Her angry mother screams and shouts in stream-of-consciousness across the apartment's tiny three rooms. Vera fights her claustrophobic home life by donning leather miniskirts, streaking her hair, and chasing after boys.
But nothing works in her life, including engagement to a nihilistic university student. Vera teeters between a doomed marriage and the allure of suicide.
"Little Vera" is extremely autobiographical. Vasily Pichul, 27, director of this first feature, was born into Vera's grim blue-collar milieu in the smoke-infested, water-polluted port city of Zhdanov--named for Andrei Zhdanov, a notorious architect of Stalin's purges. There, "Little Vera" was filmed in an apartment identical to that still occupied by Pichul's parents.
The script by Pichul's Moscow-raised wife, Maria Khnelik, was conceived by her after a visit to Zhdanov to meet the in-laws.
How did Pichul escape Vera's fate?
"I can't really say that I have some special strength," he said through a Russian translator here at the festival. "Maybe it's luck. As a boy, I was a soccer player, preparing to be a pro. Some of my friends made that career, and sometimes I envy their fame, money, and their having less problems. But when I was 17, and full of myself, the only career which could match my ambitions was to be film director--although I didn't know at all what that profession really meant. People at the VGIK Film School in Moscow were very kind to pick me. I think it's a miracle."
In Montreal, this metal worker's son wore fancy Continental clothes, drank Campari for the first time, and swore allegiance to the international film community of directors Schlondorf, Scorsese and Tarkovsky. He was flanked at parties by his attractive wife, the daughter of a well-known screenwriter, and by "my platonic love," "Little Vera's" lead, Negoda, 24, sultry and leggy and who could emerge as the Soviet Union's first sex star.
Until now, "Little Vera" has eluded censorship, though Pichul acknowledged that "rumors persist in some official circles that the film distorts reality, blackens everything, and that such works shouldn't be allowed to exist." But the film has strong allies within the Soviet Filmmakers Union, and groundswell public support bolstered by Pichul's strategic casting of two beloved Soviet actors, Ludmilla Zaitzeva and Yuri Nazarov, as Vera's parents.
At recent Soviet-style sneak previews of "Little Vera," audiences were especially impressed by Nazarov's expert portrayal of the lowly alcoholic father, because the actor; Pichul explained, normally plays, "Commissars, party people, those who don't know what doubt means."
Pichul said, "When I finished the film, many experienced persons warned me that simple people won't come to the theater to see it, and if they do, they won't like it. Simple viewers want only beautiful pictures of life. But I'm happy to say those experienced persons were wrong. We showed 'Little Vera' in both big and small towns. People were kind to the film, and kind to us."
Pichul wished to make clear in the interview that the impulse to create "Little Vera" had nothing to do with a changing of the guard in the Soviet Union. His wife, Maria Khnelik, wrote the script a few years ago, pre-Gorbachev, and it sat waiting for a studio which would produce it. "Little Vera" represents, he said, "a new generation of people, and their attitude to life. The moment has come to show what we think."
Among this youthful generation's concerns is a rejection of the traditional puritanism of Soviet art. Therefore, Pichul is particularly at odds with those who urge the excising of "Little Vera's" boudoir scenes, played with gusto by Negoda.
Will the scenes be cut?
"Over my dead body!" Pichul said, agitated anew at Montreal. "Until now, Soviet cinema has been sexless! The most pressure we got was from bureaucrats, who live a long life and lose their manhood!"