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From Russia With Angst

Vyacheslav Krishtofovich's A Friend of the Deceased provides another eye-opening glimpse of the former Soviet Union in this era of P.T. Barnum capitalism and spiritual confusion. Whatever else may be dense in the film, that's worth our undivided attention.

The place is Kiev, where the joyless hero, a translator named Anatoli (Alexandre Lazarev), is suffering the effects of a faithless wife, miserable job prospects and ennui. In the gloom of a not-so-liberated city, he finds himself disconnected and distraught. Like the society in which he lives, his old values have been demolished, and the new ones--economic freedom tainted by the treacheries of greed--don't suit. Where and when did business replace friendship?

In today's Kiev, Krishtofovich tells us, the nouveau riche can breeze into the local gray-market store and pony up a small fortune for a liter of Swedish vodka (never mind that the local potato juice is still the world's best), while a local grandmother is begging for kopeks out on the street corner. He lets us know that Pampers and English tea are coveted in the Ukraine but that life is cheap. For $500 U.S.--make that $350, if you're ready to bargain--the best hitman in town will dispatch anyone you like.

What we have here is a filmmaker's utterly nostalgic view that under the Soviets, at least, the beleaguered citizenry shared a common bond of empathy (feed the hungry, comfort the afflicted) that is vanishing fast in the dog-eat-dog world of the free marketplace.

What's remains for glum Anatoli in such a desolate landscape? Not much. With bitter irony, screenwriter Andrei Kourkov supplies him the ultimate capitalist joke: Our Hero hires a hitman to put him out of his misery.

From that moment on, A Friend of the Deceased shrouds itself in social and political metaphor. Apparently stirred as much by their love of poetry as by the fear of censorship (or worse), dissident Russian filmmakers long favored the oblique angle and the indirect parry, and Krishtofovich (Single Woman Seeks Lifetime Companion, Adam's Rib) is no exception. Anatoli's several encounters with a prostitute (Tatiana Krivitska) who has two names and two natures underscore his double view of the new Ukraine, as do Anatoli's dealings with two hitmen and with the widowed wife of one of them.

If the dissection of politics can be a poem, Krishtofovich may as well be Pushkin. Even Friend's crucial twist--Anatoli changes his mind about wanting to die--is suffused with mysteries and dramatic glimmers. In the end, this meditation on man's place in the universe (at least that part of the universe where the acquisition of fresh oranges has suddenly become as important as the eternal tug of love) is dark and sullen and gloomy. But the soul of the true artist/politician informs it, and that lets more illumination into the room than you might imagine.

Little wonder that this difficult and rewarding film played well at the Cannes, Toronto and Sundance festivals, or that it was the official Ukrainian entry at this year's Academy Awards.--Gallo

A Friend of the Deceased.
Screenplay by Andrei Kourkov. Directed by Vyacheslav Krishtofovich. With Alexandre Lazarev, Tatiana Krivitska, Eugen Pachin and Constantin Kostychin.

 
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