Thursday, October 07, 2021

Golden Voices: Refusenik Cineastes

Some call it an artform, even though most cineastes can’t stand the practice. Nevertheless, Victor and Raya Frenkel enjoyed a small sliver of prestige as the top film dubbers in the bad old Soviet Union. They were also Jewish, so their positions were always a little complicated. When the Soviets finally allowed the Refuseniks to immigrate to Israel, they decided to get out while the getting was good. However, adjusting to a new country and a new way of life will be more difficult than they expected in Evgeny Ruman’s Golden Voices, which opens tomorrow in New York.

For many Soviets, the Frenkels were the voices of international films in Russia. However, Russian dubbing is not an obviously marketable skill in 1990 Israel. Yet, due to the large influx of Russian immigrants, Raya manages to find a job requiring Russian fluency. She tells her husband she is tele-marketing. Her boss considers it phone sex, but they way she practices it, she is more like a voice in a chatroom for lonely men like Gera.

Meanwhile, her husband finally thinks he has found an outlet for his talents with a couple of low-rent Russian film pirates, but they just don’t have his commitment to quality cinema. As they try to go about their new lives, Israeli society keeps on rolling, while preparing for potential chemical weapons attacks from Saddam Hussein.

That part was no joke. If you lived through the lead-up to the first Gulf War, you should recall how George H.W. Bush insisted Israel not retaliate against any potential Iraqi attacks, so as not to jeopardize his international coalition. One can only imagine how intense the atmosphere was in Israel, but Ruman and co-screenwriter Zev Berkovich do a pretty good conveying the vibe.

Although it is billed as a comedy,
Golden Voices is thoroughly bittersweet in tone and generally much more serious than whimsical. Mariya Belkina gives an extraordinarily accomplished performance as Raya, especially in her acutely sad and sensitive scenes with Alexander Senderovich, who is also a standout as the nebbish Gera. Vladimir Friedman is achingly dignified as Victor Frenkel, but there is also more than a little sentimentality in his ardent movie love.

Still, through him, Ruman and Berkovich periodically address the frustrations of Soviet film censorship, while providing a thoughtful and mature portrait of a long-standing but imperfect relationship with his frustrated wife. Frankly, the Refusenik experience has been woefully underrepresented on film, which makes
Golden Voices quite valuable (look for Laura Bialis’s Refusenik for an excellent documentary chronicling the movement).

Even with a running time shy of 90 minutes, the first act could have stood some tightening, but the meat of the film is quite compelling. Recommended for thoughtful adult audiences,
Golden Voices opens tomorrow (10/8) in New York, at the Quad.