‘Golden Voices’ proves delightful, opens Thursday

Thanks to brilliant writing and performance, the film becomes a universal story of an older couple trying to keep their love alive and fighting to make their way in a confusing new world.

 MARIYA BELKINA and Vladimir Friedman in ‘Golden Voices.’  (photo credit: UNITED KING FILMS/ITIEL ZION)
MARIYA BELKINA and Vladimir Friedman in ‘Golden Voices.’

Golden Voices, which opens Thursday in theaters around Israel, is a delightful slice-of-Israeli-life movie about a Russian couple who were the golden voices of Soviet movie dubbing and have to adjust to a new life once they move to Tel Aviv in 1990. All the elements come together beautifully for a bittersweet comedy-drama that looks at a very particular immigrant experience.

Thanks to a perceptive and often surprisingly touching script by Yevgeny Ruman (who also directed the film) and Ziv Berkovich, and very winning performances by Mariya Belkina and Vladimir Friedman in the leads, it becomes a universal story of an older couple trying to keep their love alive and fighting to make their way in a confusing new world.

Anything that feels this true must be based on a real story or many stories, but you really don’t have to know much about the Russian community in Israel to enjoy this film. It opens when Raya Frenkel (Mariya Belkina) and Victor Frenkel (Vladimir Friedman) arrive in Israel. They were the royal couple of Russian movie dubbing, but decided to leave just as the Soviet Union was falling and try their luck in Israel.

An acquaintance helps them find an apartment and Victor is instantly fascinated by the timer on the water heater, which is he is embarrassed to ask how to use and spends the rest of the movie playing with. 

They have high hopes that an old friend who runs the Russian department at the Israel Broadcasting Authority will help them find work, but this man smiles a lot but doesn’t do anything for them, except get Victor an unpaid gig announcing the warning message for SCUD missile alerts. 

Their despair as they figure out what the hell they are going to do next – a moment that virtually every immigrant experiences – is touching and everyone will be able to relate to it, no matter where they live.

As the year goes on, they have adventures and misadventures. Raya is more adaptable than Victor and is better suited in adapting to their new circumstances, while he slides into depression. When they go out to a Russian-style nightclub, he refuses to dance with her and you sense that back in the Soviet Union, they had been the first couple to hit the dance floor.

The only paid work she finds for her golden voice is being the Russian speaker on a phone-sex line. At first she is appalled by the job, but it turns out she has a knack for it. She gets so good that her boss, Dvora (Evelin Hagoel) is worried she is getting too close to her regulars. But, she has to keep her new line of work secret from Victor, who believes she is a telemarketer.

Meanwhile, he comes across a Russian video-rental place. Its owner illegally films the latest movies and dubs them into Russian, renting them as videocassettes, and also renting older videos. Raya is put off by the fact that the whole operation is illegal, but its owners know who they are and admire their work.

Victor cannot give up the chance to be a star again and convinces Raya to join in. A scene where he stumbles along and sees Kramer vs. Kramer playing, a movie he dubbed back in Russia, is especially fun. He can’t resist reciting Dustin Hoffman’s dialogue in Russian word-for-word, wowing the clerk. You see in his face how much it means to him to be recognized for what he’s great at once again, even in a hole-in-the-wall video place.

Inevitably, the couple is driven apart and you root for them to get back together. They seem to truly love each other and have been through so much. They are old enough that no one they meet will ever really be able to understand them in the way they understand each other. They undergo their marital crisis just as the first Gulf War breaks out and the war inspires some great farce, especially when the phone-sex line workers have to huddle together in a sealed room.

There have been a number of movies about the Russian community and several of them have been very engaging comedies that, compared to many other films here, have not quite gotten their due. Arik Kaplun’s 1999 movie, Yana’s Friends, is also about Russians in Tel Aviv during the first Gulf War. It starred his wife, Evelyn Kaplun, as a recent immigrant, abandoned by her scheming husband, who gets involved with a womanizing Israeli photographer (Nir Levy). There is probably the best noteable sex scene in which both lovers are wearing gas masks.

Leon Prudovsky’s 2009 Five Hours from Paris is about an Israeli-born taxi driver (Dror Keren), who falls in love with his son’s Russian music teacher (Helena Yaralova). It’s one of the few well-done Israeli rom-coms.

Russians in Israel have not had it easy, especially those who, like the Frenkels, arrived when they were older, and it’s understandable that there have been many dramas about their hardships. But, when they make movies that are funny, they are very, very funny, with a sardonic and sophisticated sense of humor that is reminiscent of the work of the late Russian author Sergei Dovlatov.

The kind of humor on display in Golden Voices is probably the most difficult kind of story to tell well. In Hollywood, there is a saying, “Death is easy, comedy is hard” and it’s true. The comedy in this film illuminates the characters’ relationships and makes you come to care about Raya and Victor. Yet, it’s the heavier dramas that tend to win awards and generate publicity. I hope the light touch Ruman and Berkovich display in Golden Voices will help the film find the audience it deserves.