May 19, 2015
Movie of the Week: Little Vera
This is a weekly Fort Russ feature. To view earlier editions, click on the Movie of the Week tab above the title.
Little Vera came out in 1988 and gained instant notoriety for its sex scene and frontal nudity. Watching it today, one wonders what all the hubbub was about (and in fact the scene is so brief if you blink, you’ll miss it!) but, as the old saying goes, “there was no sex in USSR!” But there was plenty of politics, and the movie, made as it was at the height of the Perestroika, could not help but reflect the big political questions of the day, to the point of foreshadowing the collapse of USSR.
But first, the movie itself, subtitles and all:
Now for the spoilers.
One aspect of the political landscape of the 1980s that’s almost entirely missing from Cold Summer of 1953 is the relationship between the people and the elites, as the movie concentrates wholly on the intra-elite struggles and intrigues. However, if that movie were to represent that relatioship, as it existed in the late 1980s, it would have the young girl Shura become infaturated with Baron’s thugs upon their arrival at the fishing village. Because, ultimately, Baron’s thugs did not take over by force. They took over because the people at large lost their faith and trust in the elites and were open to to being seduced by slick, Westernized, smooth-talking Russian liberal reformers, many of whom turned out to be simple crooks and con men.
Little Vera (a play on words, because the title can also be translated as Tiny Faith), on the other hand, leaves the intra-elite struggles alone and instead focuses on the growing conflict between the state and the people, as well as on the inter-generational conflicts within them.
So, to paint with a thick brush, in this movie the men represent the state, while the women represent the people. Notice the older generation, symbolized by Vera’s parents. Both solidly working class, living in relative affluence even though they probably grew up in poverty (given their ages, they are just old enough to possibly remember the war, and certainly the post-war privations). In other words, they have reason to feel good about their lives.
However, they have nothing to offer the younger generations who have not experienced what their parents did, and now want more out of life, things their parents don’t understand and don’t know how to provide. In terms of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the older generations are happy when their basic needs, such as food, shelter, security, are satisfied–that’s what they didn’t have when growing up. Since the younger generations for all intents take all of those things for granted (I mean, who tears up a $20 bill the way that Vera does at the beginning of the movie?), they want something else. They want self-fulfillment. Which in practical terms means freedom to do with your life as you please. The parents’ inability to understand that need, plus the parents’ (especially father’s) mortal sin of hypocrisy, means that Vera (and here one is almost tempted to believe that Kat from Brother is the grown-up Vera) becomes alienated from her parents. Neither the Soviet state nor the older generations of the Soviet society are capable of providing the new generation of the Soviet people with guidance. One can see the Soviet state’s frustration as Vera’s father lashes out verbally both at Vera and her mother time and again in the film.
But since she has already rejected her parents’ values and beliefs (note how Vera turns off the radio as it is playing the Soviet national anthem) or, for that matter, those of her older brother Viktor who is still trying to follow his parents’ prescriptions and is even sharing some of his father’s bad habits, even though he too grows distant from them, Vera is left adrift. When confronted with the choice of two men, Andrey (a play-by-the-rules merchant marine cadet) and Sergey (a non-vodka-drinking happy-go-lucky nonconformist hippie college student living off money his parents are earning in Mongolia), she naturally throws her lot in with Sergey even though Andrey would have likely proved a better husband, not to mention his relationship with Vera’s parents would not have been as strained.
But is that the right choice? Does either Sergey or Vera know what they are doing, what they need to do to survive without their parents’ guidance (Vera’s mother’s gift of a fairly thick packet of books on housekeeping delivers that message nicely)? No they don’t, and as that realization sinks in Vera attempts to commit suicide (only to be rescued by Viktor, a parallel to Basargin’s saving the village from Baron) and Sergey, in the last words spoken in the movie, says “I am afraid.” As well he should be. The father’s apparent heart attack at the very end of the movie suggests that the “wild ’90s”, when the kids will have to figure out how to make it on their own, when much of what they have been taking for granted is suddenly no longer there, are just around the corner…
To relate the movie to more recent events, it helps to realize that many if not most of the people on the Kiev Maidan were just like Vera and Sergey. It’s just that Ukraine never went through the same transformation that Russia thankfully already has successfully, if painfully, completed. No, for Ukraine that transformation is only beginning, Baron’s thugs have taken over the village, Sergey has seduced Vera, but no Viktor or Basargin seems to be in sight…