Vyacheslav Krishtofovich's new film, A Friend of the Deceased, is really two studies: one in the violent changes the former Soviet bloc countries have undergone since the Berlin Wall came down, and another in the intricacies of international filmmaking. It's set and filmed in Krishtofovich's native Ukraine, but as a French/Ukrainian co-production, its credits are in French and ... English. Finally, the language the characters actually speak here is ... Russian. The Ukrainian Krishtofovich received a Russian education, and shoots all his films (included 1991's well-received Adam's Rib) in the language of his country's former oppressors.
In such paradoxes lies A Friend's most powerful irony: Its central character, the very nearly totally dispossessed Anatoli (Alexandre Lazarev), lives mired in nostalgia for the Soviet Union.
No, he doesn't miss the Gulag. Instead, he remembers earning the relatively little bread he needed via the life of the mind, and the deep friendships people formed in their mostly underground society.
His problems go beyond mere nostalgia, however. He doesn't have the skills, or, more importantly, the temperament, to thrive in the expensive new world. He ekes out a living doing translations, but in the new Kiev, you don't survive, as in the old days -- you either win or lose. Suspender-wearing yuppies, looking frighteningly like their American counterparts circa 1986, now abound, and making money is the only game in town. As an old army buddy tells Anatoli, "Before, we had friendships. Now we have business relationships."
Anatoli's wife, Marina (Elena Korikova), a fetching blond, has made a smoother transition than her husband, and when she leaves him to take up with her boss, it comes as no surprise, especially since their only remaining conversations consist of her asking Anatoli if he needs any money before she leaves their grim apartment for work. The memory of tenderness lingers in the question, which she doesn't enjoy asking. But they're badly suited now -- when she gets a call on a cell phone, Anatoli carries it to her by holding the antenna between the tips of his index finger and thumb, as if the device were a dead mouse.
One of the film's few surprises comes in the appearance of Anatoli himself. The press materials reveal that the depressed, defeated central character will contact one of Kiev's numerous contract killers, at first thinking of knocking off his wife's lover, but eventually slipping a photo of himself, with instructions on how to find him, into the hit man's postal box.
From that plot summary, you might expect the suicidal Anatoli to be an aging intellectual with thick, wild eyebrows. Instead, he's a young, good-looking guy, maybe 35, with a resemblance to Andy Garcia. Evidently, if you reached adulthood under the Soviet system, whether you're 35 or 65, you're probably ill-equipped for raw capitalism. (Not that in our own workers' paradise, everyone finds the work for which he or she is temperamentally best suited, of course. But at least our unnecessary intellectuals get to teach community college.)
If the plot sounds familiar -- guy hires contract killer, but it turns out the name on the contract is his own -- you might be thinking of Warren Beatty's new film Bulworth; or of Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski's White, the middle film of his career- and life-ending trilogy.
White, though, had comic energy; Friend is almost as depressed as its hero. The Kiev that Anatoli roams in search of work is a grim place (though we see other Kievs as well: elaborate apartment buildings under construction so far out of town that they seem to be in no man's land, and the faintly garish Kiev of the nouveaux riches). Even when he is miraculously spared his first date with the assassin and meets Lena, a happy hooker (Tatiana Kriviska) who gives him one on the house, Anatoli is not exactly Zorba-like in his jubilation. He takes a shot at literally kicking up his heels, but his happiness is too faint. It won't last, especially since he is now too embarrassed to call off the hit, and so is reduced to hiring another hit man to deal with the first.
Actually, this sounds even funnier than White, but Krishtofovich plays it straight. We get a period of low-key suspense, trying to figure out which killer will win (with Anatoli in the middle), but the filmmaker isn't so interested in plot mechanics. Nearer to his heart is Anatoli's downward spiral. As long as he was passive, Anatoli was morally okay, but after he takes his first step, he's lost. In this film there is simply no opening for untainted action. To help his friend the prostitute, he continues the killing game, which he pays for by becoming a paid liar, hiring himself out for divorce proceedings and claiming to have bedded married women he's never met. In other words, he becomes the kind of rat he probably despised during the Soviet era, when moral issues were apparently less ambiguous.
Frankly, by two-thirds of the way through the film, Anatoli deserves to die. He deserves our pity as well. Growing up in one thoroughly corrupt system, then finding himself adrift in another, he would have to be heroic to maintain his human dignity. And he's not.
One of the killers provides a rare moment of moral clarity late in the film. Anatoli comes to him with money to eliminate the prostitute's problem. Trying to get into the swing of things, Anatoli puts the best face on the transaction. His manner suggests, "this is a dirty business, but it's all a dirty business these days, and you have to put vodka on the table." But the killer, a former soldier, gives him a brief, grim look that simply says, "Shut up. We're living in hell."
A Friend of the Deceased is well worth a look, but more for sociological reasons than cinematic ones. The film has its insights, even if their form sometimes feels too familiar. You'll learn more about what's happening behind the fallen Iron Curtain than CNN will ever tell you.
A Friend of the Deceased.
Directed by Vyacheslav Krishtofovich. With Alexandre Lazarev, Elena Korikova and Tatiana Kriviska.
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