*** (A must-see)

Directed by Vasily Pichul

Written by Maria Khmelik

With Natalya Negoda, Andrei Sokolov, Ludmila Zaitzeva, and Yuri Nazarov.

Until recently Moscow did not believe in tears or in soft-core sex scenes–or in hard-core depictions of ordinary workers’ lives in that reputedly classless society. But with glasnost in gear, director Vasily Pichul’s impertinent Little Vera opened rousingly last year; upwards of 50 million Soviet viewers gaped not only at the erotic antics on-screen but at a crucial and controversial Soviet cinematic achievement–an explicit expression of the cynicism and anguish rampant within a family that occupies sardine-can-sized living quarters in a provincial seaport town. In triumphant infiltrations into Western film festivals, this blunt film reaped awards in Montreal, Venice, and Chicago. Despite the “glasnost girl” hoopla (including a Playboy cover appearance for lead actress Natalya Negoda), Little Vera is decidedly not a prurient red version of I Am Curious (Yellow). The sex scenes are standard R-rated stuff, remarkable only because Soviet actors, who rarely bare all, are caught in the clinch. Among relatively recent Soviet releases here Little Vera may not be as stunningly well crafted as, say, Elem Klimov’s Come and See or as urgent and haunting as Tengiz Abuladze’s Repentance, but it does muster a subtle dramatic force. It’s certainly a gritty and unapologetic portrayal of Soviet life, suffused with a disappointment and disaffection that is, well, a lot like what we can find here.

The title character Vera (Negoda) is a sullen and sultry frosty-haired 18-year-old who wears blouses with plunging necklines, leather miniskirts, net stockings, and high heels–garb more suited to SoHo than Red Square or a provincial public park. Vera is alienated youth incarnate. She may not ingest designer drugs but practically anything goes–except there’s not much going on. She endures living in an emotional hellhole of a flat, skirmishing daily with her miserable parents, is disenchanted to say the least with the drab Soviet system, bickers with a conformist older brother, rejects the “good girl” route to success of a university education, and, for the time being anyway, prefers to hang out and sneer at anything that moves. Naturally, all her shrewdness and sharp edges melt away the instant she encounters a similarly surly male medical student. She is a classic rebel without a cause in a country claiming to fulfill–or to want to fulfill–everything every rebel in history ever desired.

Director Pichul and writer Maria Khmelik, his wife, have fashioned a tautly composed film that is especially redolent of the British “kitchen sink” dramas and the Free Cinema works of the late 1950s and early ’60s: particularly Tony Richardson’s Look Back in Anger (1958), A Taste of Honey (1961), and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962); Karel Reisz’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960); and Lindsay Anderson’s This Sporting Life (1963). In fact, Pichul is arguably in perfect compliance (even more than these directors were) with the Free Cinema manifesto encouraging “a belief in freedom, in the importance of people, and in the significance of the everyday.” Behind the cool nonjudgmental depiction of Vera’s lackluster life is an evident anger and a hope for better things. Ironically, the most recent Western film resembling Little Vera that comes to mind is Chris Bernard’s (also British) Letter to Brezhnev, wherein a young working-class Liverpool woman in a dead-end existence opts to “defect” to the Soviet Union to marry a sailor. If Little Vera is anything to go by, the apolitical Liverpool lass would fit right in, at least with Vera’s crowd.

The story line is slight. The filmmakers are far more interested in conveying and comprehending their antiheroine’s antagonistic attitude. Little Vera opens in the claustrophobic confines of a fairly typical Soviet working-class flat where Vera conducts a cold war with a distant, alcoholic truck-driver father (Yuri Nazarov) and a frigid, bitter mother (Ludmila Zaitzeva) who tries to goad her daughter into taking a purely predatory approach toward men and a career. Mother wonders, as we do, how U.S. currency finds its way into Vera’s pockets, which Mother lovingly searches. Vera slips away from this emotional abattoir to a park where other Soviet dead-end kids, more aimless than rebellious, congregate to listen to rock-music tapes and check each other out. At a dance menacingly patrolled by police and dogs, Vera fends off a lovesick wimp and then bumps into the lust of her life thus far. Sergei (Andrei Sokolov) is a sickeningly self-assured medical student who quickly beds her and, one surmises, will just as readily abandon her for the next young female to parade along. But in spite of an obvious lack of warmth or rapport between them, he stays. Perhaps we are to assume Vera and Sergei can’t help mistaking their tepid trysting for “true love” but their relationship, which exhibits one-night-stand potential only, is a troublingly weak point in the script. Still, when Vera announces that she’s pregnant, Sergei, an unlikely gallant, is unflinching in the face of marriage and daddyhood.

He moves from his tiny dorm room to Vera’s parents’ cramped flat–because of chronic housing shortages a common Soviet practice for married or engaged couples. There Sergei interferes most rudely with the neurotic and crippling games everyone plays: it could be a case study in family psychopathology straight out of R.D. Laing. When tending to her father during drinking binges Vera displays an unanticipated devotion and a craving for paternal approval. All this muted turmoil is captured with jittery hand-held camera, which creates (or reproduces) a sense of living precariously within a tiny, ill-lit, if very clean sewage pipe and waiting for someone up above to flush the linked toilet. Meanwhile, Vera and Sergei make love a lot in a thin-walled room. This is no recipe for peaceful coexistence, and the tale winds up with Vera rather unwittingly taking the parental side against Sergei. The film excels in capturing the choreography of mutual contempt (and attraction) at work in the family.

Like British director Mike Leigh in High Hopes, director Pichul and writer Khmelik can’t seem to decide how to allocate the blame for their characters’ plights (beyond their own acknowledged shortcomings), whether to point fingers at family pathology or at the regime in power, or both. Obviously they must be tactful. Nonetheless, Little Vera is a surprisingly engaging drama that packs maximum emotional charge into relatively little action, and it signals that a healthy critical trend is under way in Soviet cinema, shorn of sterile moralism and freed to some degree from Stalinist-style censorship. And Little Vera reminds us that folks over there are no less human or interesting than here–always a useful lesson because it’s so easily forgotten.