FRIEND OF THE DECEASED, A

R
Reviews

'Nostalgia isn't what it used to be,' a pundit once observed and he might have been talking about A Friend of the Deceased, Ukrainian director Vyacheslav Krishtofovich's mournful look at his native country's present state following the collapse of Communism.

Today's Ukraine might lack the rigid order of the old regime, but, for the film's protagonist Anatoli (Alexandre Lazarev), that's not necessarily an improvement. A Kiev intellectual whose academic credentials have been devalued, Anatoli is barely scraping by financially as a translator and views the 'new' Ukraine as only slightly more civilized than the American Wild West, dominated as it is by speculators, gangsters and the black market.

Anatoli's estranged wife Katia (Angelika Nevolina) has fared considerably better, having made the adjustment to capitalism as an advertising executive. For Anatoli, Katia's abandonment of him is a bitter blow which triggers a downward slide, psychologically and emotionally. In a fit of malaise, Anatoli decides to kill Katia and recruits a hit man, but when the contract killer requests a photograph of the intended victim, Anatoli provides a picture of himself instead. The plan calls for the rub-out to take place when Anatoli visits his favorite cafe. But, true to Anatoli's bad luck, the restaurant closes early that night for a private party. The discouraged Anatoli can't even arrange his own death competently.

Both Krishtofovich's direction and Andrei Kourkov's screenplay have traces of Dostoyevsky and Kafka, and the film shifts, not always gracefully, between drama and black comedy. Providing a familiar note is the character of Vika (Tatiana Krivitska), the emblematic hooker with a heart of gold, who befriends a drunken Anatoli and spends the night with him. Although the possibility of a genuine relationship between the tortured intellectual and the spirited prostitute appears unlikely, Anatoli decides there might still be things to live for. But-no surprise, here-Anatoli's hired killer hasn't forgotten his assignment. Indeed, the only way to stop him seems to be hiring a second assassin. Things can be complicated in the new Ukraine.

There's certainly an irony that can be explored in a setting where the corruption of one-time Communist bosses has given way to the villainy of Western-style swindlers and crime lords. A Friend of the Deceased, Krishtofovich's first picture since 1991's Adam's Rib, taps into that irony, but appears to be more interested in Anatoli's personal quest to right himself in this complex and hardly brave new world. But, for all the charisma of Lazarev in the lead role-and he is a photogenic, skilled actor who may remind some of the young Marcello Mastroianni-Anatoli is less a tragic figure than a fundamentally regressive one buffeted by change.

The biggest difficulty audiences are likely to have with A Friend of the Deceased is the willfulness which governs Anatoli's behavior. One could argue that he is a character undergoing a severe crisis in his life, but in a fragile society where children are begging in the streets, the educated Anatoli's inability to come to terms with his own freedom, or even to take a commonplace job, hardly elicits sympathy for his plight. Perhaps the filmmaker intended that the viewer experience a revulsion toward Anatoli, but, too often in the movie, we find ourselves looking around the edges more than at the portrait of this 'central' figure. That Vilen Kaluta's muted photography captures the sad reality of Kiev's present, with its faded charm and bleak suburbs, only adds to our impatience with Anatoli's self-absorbed adventures. Anatoli takes comfort in a friend's observation: 'Before we had friendships, now we have business relationships.' Nostalgia may not be what it used to be, but A Friend of the Deceased suggests that anything's better than the future.

--Ed Kelleher