Like his Academy Award-nominated “The Thief,” set in the Stalinist era, Pavel Chukhrai’s latest opus, “A Driver for Vera, set during the Khrushchev “thaw,” plays political drama out on a domestic stage. This tale of an ambitious chauffeur caught up in a spiraling personal and political maelstrom garnered numerous awards at Russian fests, its thoroughly lived-in period reconstruction, luminously lensed Crimean vistas and dense atmosphere of escalating hysteria wowing audiences and juries alike. For Western auds, however, pic’s oddly disjointed wedding of operatic emotionalism and cool aesthetic distance may prove more off-putting than enthralling.
As the new limo driver for a general (Bogdan Stupka), Viktor (Igor Petrenko) is soon jauntily tooling though summertime Crimea, briefly stopping for his first awestruck glimpse of the sea.
The handsome young soldier may provide the answer to more than one problem, since the general’s willful, lame daughter Vera (Alena Babenko) is pregnant and unmarried.
While Viktor chivalrously struggles to accommodate the wild mood swings of Vera, the general fights for survival. The KGB wants to use the general as a scapegoat for an incident in which Russian sailors were sacrificed for nuclear secrecy.
Indeed, Viktor is soon unwillingly pressed into service as part-time spy by the resident KGB agent (Andrei Panin), who also is the general’s adjutant.
“Driver” has been compared to “Burnt by the Sun” for its contrast between dark political intrigue and sun-drenched pastoral settings and for its interweaving of public and private disasters. But unlike Nikita Mikhalkov’s larger-than-life, hero-centric pic, Chukhrai’s film lacks a central figure with whom the viewer can identify.
Viktor’s Candide-like pretty-boy is fairly unreadable, either by design or due to thesp Petrenko’s limited emotional repertoire. Even Viktor’s ongoing moral struggle to reconcile ambition and decency winds up seeming irrelevant, as events inexorably proceed far outside his control.
Vera’s desperate chauffeured rides to hospitals, back-alley abortionists and unfaithful Cuban ex-boyfriends determine the direction of the film at times, but her dysfunctional behavior eliminates her as the film’s emotional center and does not invite intimacy.
The general, as vibrantly embodied by inimitable Ukrainian character actor Stupka, hangs on to his fast-fading power like a bulldog as a pack of KGB jackals close in for the kill. He triggers pic’s only tragically resonant scenes as he soothingly talks his daughter down from her latest self-destructive rampage.
Chukhrai’s true focus is socio-historical: the contrast between the new social openness that includes wild parties on Navy ships with “The Twist” blaring, and the lethal scurrying around to hide secrets that might now come to light.
Tech credits are extraordinary: the physicality of the light, the sheen of the wood-paneled offices, the peculiar flatness of land bordering the sea, the sounds of American rock ‘n’ roll echoing through a army dacha in Sebastopol. Igor Klebanov’s widescreen lensing magisterially cools out the lush Crimean summerscapes, while Olga Karvchenya’s production design slyly luxuriates in the newfound opulence of upper-level bureaucracy.