With the fall of the United Socialist Soviet Republic (U.S.S.R.) in 1990, there was a surge of Jewish immigrants fleeing for other countries. My hometown of Roanoke, Virginia, was one such place where my temple welcomed many new families and helped them settle in. Many others, however, decided to go somewhere closer — Israel, the homeland of the Jewish people. Whether moving to the West or the Middle East, it didn’t matter; acclimation was required and, with it came an opportunity for a fresh start. This is where co-writer/director/editor Evgeny Ruman and co-writer/cinematographer Ziv Berkovich find the basis for their comedic drama Golden Voices, set against the backdrop of immigrants coming to Israel. But rather than focus on the young, they took inspiration from the experiences of their parents, thereby centering Golden Voices on an older couple, requiring both to step beyond their comfort zones. Being light in tone and with stakes low, Golden Voices succeeds in being delightful, built on a script that understands the difficulty of starting over and was brought to life by performances which never lose their resonate humanity.
Husband and wife Victor and Raya Frenkal (Vladimir Friedman and Maria Belkin) built a career around dubbing voices for foreign films in Russia, yet find themselves unable to find such opportunities in their new community in Israel. Raya sees it less as a loss and more as a chance to do something new, whereas Victor begrudgingly clings to what he knows. Though the two start off trying to find work together, Raya applies for a job at a call center, while Victor takes a job with the local government putting up flyers directing citizens of what to do in case of a chemical attack. What Raya doesn’t tell Victor is that her job is for a sex call line; meanwhile, Victor, unfulfilled, tries to find work more to his talents, whereas Raya takes immediately to her new job and is able to provide for them both. As more time passes, a growing gulf forms as her secret and his persistence to make things as they were threaten their once loving and supportive marriage.
Golden Voices is as much an immigrant story as it is a romance as it is a fish out of water comedy. None of these elements are treated as less important than the other, none being side-stepped, shorted, or, impressively, blown out of proportion. It’s a grounded story where the laughs come as naturally as the pain. In the opening sequence, we first meet Victor and Raya inside an aircraft, standing like the rest of the passengers, awaiting to deplane. They are timid, a tad fearful, and, rather than joining the rest of the passengers, Victor stops Raya to take a photo of her atop the steps by the door of the aircraft. He gives her directions, she dutifully follows (though hesitantly), and even when the person gathering all the passengers tells him they are waiting for him to take a group photo, he doesn’t hurry to finish his photograph. It’s sweet and charming, a moment of levity amid some real tension considering all of these people fled Russia, but it also serves to communicate who Victor and Raya are: he’s set in his ways, determined to do things his way, and she more likely to follow his lead. The only way for the film to produce drama is to shake them up, push her to go after what brings her joy and require him to consider a perspective beyond his own desire. We watch them slowly pull apart from each other (him not wanting to dance when they go to club, her keeping secrets about her work), but it’s clear they have love for each other. It’s just that they stopped seeing each other beyond who they were and, more than she, Victor is afraid of doing anything else. Considering the real tumultuous nature of the period (the fall of the U.S.S.R. and the potential threat of chemical attack from Saddam Hussein in Iraq), Ruman and Berkovich manage to never lose the trees amid the forest, using the world issues to highlight that just because one changes their surroundings doesn’t mean that life will get better without proactive action. All through the film there are concerns and comments as to whether Hussein will attack, implying that danger could come at any time. But while Victor is so focused on that, he’s oblivious to the threat before him: losing his wife due to his lack of temerity in their new life. Golden Voices runs less than 90 minutes with credits and Ruman and Berkovich make each moment meaningful, leading to a conclusion which, while predictable, pulls at the heartstrings while being adorably hilarious.
Compared to recent Music Box Films home release Little Girl, which had several Q&As, interviews, and more, Golden Voices is a tad lacking. It does include a feature-length commentary track from Ruman and Berkovich whose information adds some exquisite color. For instance, the opening sequence of the film takes place at the same airport as where they and their parents arrived. They also add explanations for some of the production design choices, pulling from their personal experiences which served as the base of the narrative. There is all a single deleted scenes track which includes several individual cut scenes. So rather than picking them individually, you must watch them all or hunt for a specific one. Most of them proved to be redundant compared to other sequences, but there’s one featuring Uri Klauzner’s theater-owning Shaul which helps explain how he ends up at the rental spot with the bootleg new releases Victor’s been dubbing and another showing him practicing with a different voice actor. While one could infer how Shaul discovered the store and how he determined that Victor was worth working with to dub the new films, the scene helps lay the groundwork in a more clean-cut way. Admittedly, the introduction of the character would’ve been more abrasive, so the choice to delete the scene does make sense. That said, the scene of Victor interviewing a replacement for Raya would’ve, I think, made him a tad more sympathetic and given the character more to do beyond seeming so narrow-focused. We get a sense of just how much he trusted and appreciated Raya as a scene-partner, just how much he valued her as an actor, that working with someone new required a different skillset. It helps sell that maybe he does need to move on as he can’t have things as they were.
If you enjoyed Golden Voices, either in theaters or on home video, easily the real value of the bonus features comes from the commentary, hearing the personal stories which inspired the film. That’s the joy and, frankly, best reason to pick up any film you love: the bonus features. Not only can you put it on anytime you like, but you can revisit the stories of the creators, too. Though set in 1990 and inspired by their lives, there’s a universality to Golden Voices that makes it work now and in the future. Most of us are immigrants from somewhere. Either by force or by choice, we or our families came to whichever country you’re in and set down roots. Perhaps my favorite thing about Golden Voices is how it shows that even being among your people (Russian Jews moving to Israel), you can still feel alone or lonely if you don’t speak the language or can’t find things you could at home. The struggle to fit in can happen even now, which is why being open to possibilities matters. Be a Raya, try something new and see how it fits. It might just take you on an adventure you could never plan for nor expect.
Golden Voices Special Features:
- Feature Audio Commentary with writer/director Evgeny Ruman and writer/DP Ziv Berkovich
- Deleted Scenes
- Poster Gallery
- Theatrical Trailer
Available on digital January 25th, 2022.
Available on DVD February 22nd, 2022.
For more information, head to the official Music Box Films Golden Voices website.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.