Films about the immigrant experience are hardly unusual at the moment, but Golden Voices manages to get fresh juice from a well squeezed formula. Perhaps surprisingly it’s a comedy, from Israel, largely in Russian. That’s a venn diagram right there. It’s also incredibly charming, does not go for easy laughs and has two fantastic performances from its two stars, Maria Belkin and Vladimir Friedman.
They play two Russian voiceover artists who have decided, in the immediate aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse, to immigrate to Israel, where, in their 60s, they’re hoping to make a new start.
Back home they were the go-to guys who dubbed all the big foreign movies, from Spartacus to To Kill a Mockingbird. In fact, an old friend tells Victor (Friedman), he’d never realised that Kirk Douglas was a good actor until Victor gave him voice.
Now, wide-eyed in their new country, they’re nobodies, golden voices no more, with no Hebrew and a realisation that the Yiddish they spoke as children also has no real purchase in the modern thrusting Israel that’s their new home.
With more can-do on her part than his, they set about finding their feet, settling into an apartment found by a nephew, Boris, who now goes by the more Hebrew name Baruch, taking their first faltering steps in the new language and trying to find jobs.
Work does not come easy, and he ends up pounding the streets delivering local authority handouts door to door, while she accidentally winds up on the bottom rung of the sex industry, in a concrete silo where bored women have phone sex with men for money. And suddenly Raya, porn name Margarita, finds a niche, of sorts. Amusingly, it’s a variation on what she’s used to. If a customer wants her to be 22 years old, with green eyes, firm breasts and juicy thighs, then that’s what she’ll be. It’s all in the voice. Raya tells Victor her new job involves selling perfume.
Victor, however, remains lost, stumbling into an audition for a theatre role and finding that he can only do other people – his On the Waterfront “coulda beena contenda” is a great Brando but the director wants a great Victor. Fail. Later, Victor winds up involved with a couple who run a video shop, who also have a sideline in pirating films at the cinema – not easy in the pre-smartphone era, when a bulky camera had to be smuggled in.
Porn and piracy might help give this film a currency it mightn’t otherwise have had, but the real reason to watch it is the delicate way that the comic set pieces are handled – in the scene where Raya impersonates the decades-younger woman, the temptation to play it entirely for laughs must have been incredibly strong. Instead director Evgeny Ruman and the brilliantly versatile Maria Belkin make it a tender scene, Raya growing in confidence as she realises she’s getting somewhere with her caller, and the viewer willing her to bring it (and him) off.
Vladimir Friedman also gets his moments to shine. There’s a lovely moment where Victor arrives in the video shop for the first time and realises that the film they’re showing is Kramer vs. Kramer – one of “his” – and he starts to take on the mannerisms and vocal inflection of Dustin Hoffman. Not ridiculously, just enough so we notice if we’re paying attention.
Victor and Raya’s journey towards finding their own, real voices is the arc of the film, of course it is, but we’re not bludgeoned with it. And the fact that Victor and Raya are getting on a bit makes this something of heroic adventure for the two of them. We want them to succeed and will them onward.
It’s a lovely mix of the poignant and the funny, with just enough jeopardy to give it forward thrust. And the fact that the actors Maria Belkin and Vladimir Friedman, and director Evgeny Ruman, all also left the collapsing USSR for a new life in Israel adds a personal flavour and makes the journey of Raya and Victor even more fascinating to watch.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021