A sullen, sluttish teen-ager with streaked hair is ignoring her parents, popping fruit into her mouth as they question where she got a $20 bill. She rips it in half, flushes the bill down the toilet, and--clad in a miniskirt--escapes to a pulsating disco with friends.
If this were the opening of an American or French film, viewers would hardly raise an eyebrow. But because this sequence begins a Soviet film--"Little Vera"--eyebrows have been arching quite high. From Moscow to film festivals including Venice (where it won the Critics' Prize) and Chicago (which awarded it Best Film as well as Best Actress), "Little Vera" has been hailed as the breakthrough movie of the glasnost era.
This first feature by 28-year-old director Vasily Pichul replaces socialist realism with sexual realism, rejecting traditional upbeat models of hard-working citizenry. Instead, it offers a clear-eyed portrait of Vera's limited chances for happiness in a bleak industrial context.
As played by Natalya Negoda--who recently compounded the film's controversy by appearing on the cover of Playboy's May issue--Vera is an impulsive, sexy, contradictory and compelling character. When asked how representative Vera is of the Soviet population, the 25-year-old actress said, "If the movie weren't so true, it wouldn't be so popular."
Negoda, in the United States to promote "Little Vera," was seated in the New York apartment of Viviane Mikhalkov, who was translating. The actress, who wore little makeup and didn't fit the stereotype of glamorous film star, was referring to the fact that "Little Vera" broke box-office records in her native country, attracting over 50 million viewers within the first three months of release.
How much of its popularity is due to the first explicit sex scene in Soviet film history is debatable. When asked whether she was aware of breaking a taboo when the love scene was shot, the actress answered: "I didn't think about it. I'm afraid that if an actor is aware of breaking a taboo, nothing will come of the work. An actor can't think about what will happen later. And when you're watching dailies, the actor's vanity is such that you see only yourself: 'Did I play it well or not?' "
Nevertheless, the nudity seems to be less shocking than the honesty of its depictions: an alcoholic father, a well-meaning but coarse mother, meaningless work, aimless youth, cramped housing conditions--culminating in a suicide attempt.
To the question of where these problems originate, Negoda replied: "There is an exhaustion, a hopelessness, in our society. Of course the people work a lot; of course their work brings them little satisfaction." Indeed, the very title means not only small Vera, but little faith.
"Faith can't be little," she elaborated. "It can either exist or not. It's our tragedy to have so little faith. The Russian people used to be very religious; then, they lost their faith in God. At the same time, they lost faith in themselves, in their sense of life.
"What's most frightening," Negoda continued while lighting a cigarette, "is that nothing holds meaning, nothing prevents you from doing something immoral. You used to give yourself total permissiveness and then you'd say, 'I've committed a lot of sins but regret them all.' Now, you leave out the part about regret."
The bleakness of this vision is illustrated in "Little Vera," where her feisty character does not hold up to family tensions. "People see a very strong person in Vera," the actress proposed, "but she's not; if she were, she'd break out of it all. She's more like a pawn on a chessboard, manipulated by circumstances."
Negoda described the behavior of her heroine as "that of someone who wears a mask. For instance, when she does vulgar or unpleasant things, it's a superstructure. What was difficult for me was that I had to lower myself to her social level, put myself down, let things out. I've been brought up in a certain way, and Vera does things I'd never do."
When asked to speculate on what happens to the protagonist when the film ends, Negoda said quietly, "I don't want to make the movie more depressing, but there's no other exit for her than to become a mother."
This combination of tragic limitation and comic resilience is shared with the actress whom Negoda calls her main inspiration, Giulietta Massina. "I don't want to say that I intended to imitate her," she explains about the Italian star of films from "La Strada" to "Juliet of the Spirits," "but she has this range of talent--especially in comedy--which is rare. Intuitively, I know she gave me a lot."
Another individual who apprently gave a great deal to Negoda is Pichul, the director of "Little Vera": "It was great to work with Vasily," she recalled, "because the script is not dogma for him. He allowed me a lot of freedom, and much that is onscreen was never written. You have to understand that the screenwriter (Maria Khmelik) is also Vasily's wife! So the relationship was good.
"Thank God they didn't have different opinions," she exclaimed. "They wanted Vera to be not an invented image, but a real person that you can find anywhere; consequently, they allowed the actors to bring a lot of themselves into the roles."
For Negoda, this was quite a departure from the rather "boring work," as she put it, that she was doing in the theater. Trained at the Moscow Arts Theater School, she spent two years performing in the Theater for Young Viewers before turning to film.
She obtained the role in "Little Vera"--which the 27-year-old Khmelik had written in the pre- glasnost era of 1983--by auditioning. But the next film she is doing with this pair, "TheNights Are Dark in Sochi," was written directly for her. All she would reveal about the film is that it will premiere at the Venice Film Festival, adding, "Vasily says you don't have to know what the story is: The critics will tell you!"
Now that she is the first Soviet to pose nude for Playboy, it is likely that Negoda will be offered more roles than she might wish. About the photos, she said they were "taken in December in Los Angeles, in John Wayne's former house." To the question of what the repercussions might be back home, she said with a smile, "I think Russia has bigger problems to face than my being photographed in Playboy. Besides, it's not on sale there."
With two days left before her return to Moscow, Negoda reflected on her brief visit to the United States. Was it a completely different world from her own? "Totally different," she said. "But your problems are the same as ours, even if the social level is different. We're all human beings."