Film Scouts Reviews

"Priyatel pokoinika (A Friend of the Deceased)"

by Karen Jaehne

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The New Russia is a lot like Old America. On the move, on the make, grab your grubstake, and Satan take the hindmost. News reports from all the new countries spawned by the breakup tell of runaway inflation, hard-currency greed, prostitution, drugs, mayhem, homicide and a general suspension of humanism. But how does that work in a particular life?

"A Friend of the Deceased" shows us the mechanisms that deprive people of their values - and value. It is such a lucid demonstration of a society turned inside out that it's easy to forget that it's also a nifty thriller. Developed from the point of view of Anatoli, the story revolves around the difficulty of making a decent living or even earning an honest ruble. Anatoli's wife Katia seems to have less trouble than he does, partly because she has adapted to the advertising business and has a clear eye for the main chance. Her "leg up" only alienates Anatoli, who sees the society around him as liars, whores and thieves.

Then he discovers the killers. In a hopeless turn of events, Anatoli makes a strange suicide attempt by taking out a contract on his own life. The snafu's that allow him to dodge death are very entertaining in a macabre sort of way, and they readily reveal the distorted capitalism at work in the Ukraine. This is formally what you might call an "education sentimental," as Anatoli goes from being a well-educated translator to a manipulator of hired guns. Finding his place in this brave new world makes a man of him, although not a better man.

Better than what? Implicit in this movie is a comparison with the way things were. With Soviet Socialism, which nobody ever considered very successful. Today it don't look half bad.

At one point in the film, Anatoli's old friend says, "Before we had friendships. Now we have business relationships." Perhaps, although I think that is wishful thinking. I spent several years in and out of communist countries, and the one constant principle I observed was that there was no such thing as friendship. Any "friend" could too easily be turned against you by an absolute state, and blood was what counted. Hungarian director Istvan Szabo once told me that all relationships in the East Bloc were conditioned by "the knock on the door at midnight," namely the local version of the KGB come to call and find out how they could strong-arm you. Szabo also feigned total ignorance of everyone and everything, because "information gets you in trouble," as he said.

I would love to talk to Mr. Krishtofovich and find out if this film corresponds to his own experience, or if it is just an ingenious and convincing story. It was written by Andrei Kourkov, who won an extremely prestigious European literary prize, the Heinrich Böll Prize, and it feels a helluva lot smarter than the world it portrays in that French way that Chabrol, for example, can give a slick edge to a crumbly detective novel.

One note: all the girls in the film are flashy blondes. They look nothing like the Ukrainian girls on the subways from the Russian enclave in New York. If the blondes are an accurate reflection of a change wrought by capitalism, then the women have benefited enormously - sartorially speaking. And I'm not talking about Jean-Paul or existentialism. These chicks are not worried about existence; they've got fashion on the brain. That may create some existential problems for our hero, but that's his problem. He's a humanist - and a has-been.

At almost every juncture "A Friend of the Deceased" takes an unexpected turn, and the surprise at the end is surprisingly hopeful for such a vision of materialism. French money has permitted the kind of production values we take for granted in the West, and it's a pretty good guide for being the friend and not the deceased.

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