Monday, 22 November 2010

This film, Farewell (dir Christian Carion, 2009) is an ambitious but suitably low-key affair; 'suitably' because of the depressing nature of the situation in play at the time - we're in the early 1980s just before Gorbachev's perestroika program of reform which changed Russia's attitude toward the West and led to the Berlin Wall being dismantled. The film purports to chronicle the events on the Russian side, in the catastrophic failure of its espionage program due to the activities of a lone person, that directly caused the policy change.

Sergei Gregoriev (Emir Kusturica, in pic at right) is a Soviet agent who has decided to dismantle his country's network of foreign sources of information, and so contacts Pierre Froment (Guillaume Canet, in pic at left), a French engineering contractor working in Moscow who somehow gets 'turned' so that he starts funnelling intelligence from Gregoriev to France. As the operation gets more sophisticated with the use of micro-cameras and other paraphernalia of the trade, more national spy agencies get wind of what's happening, notably America's CIA.

While there is a lot of tension between the different characters - such as Sergei's son, Igor (Evgeniy Kharlanov), who finds out about Sergei's mistress, Natasha (Ingeborga Dapkunaite); or Froment's wife (Alexandra Maria Lara), who starts to get cold feet as the fiction of her husband's status in Moscow is drawn out in time - there is no reliance by the filmmakers on abrupt expressions of emotion or overwrought physical action. It all takes place in the film where it would realistically take place in life: within. This makes the viewer watch the main characters closely, and as a result they become multi-dimensional and complex.

Sergei, especially, is a person with complex motivations. Dismantling the secrecy system in Soviet Russia is a personal matter for him. He loves his son. He doesn't want his son to grow up in the same atmosphere of distrust and fear that he grew up in. So we see him, on the couch late at night, watching old home movies from a time when Igor was a small child. Sergei lies in the darkness smoking a cigarette and reflecting on a happier time in his family's life together.

Froment's motivations are less clear but he acknowledges Sergei's disquiet and attends to his needs. There is a fair amount of personal interaction between the two when they meet in parks or fields to exchange items of importance to the drama: a book of French poetry and a Queen tape for Sergei, a sheaf of papers for Froment. As Sergei has noone else to confide in he tends to muse aloud on his current state of mind at these meetings, which adds interest to the script.

Igor is not the only secondary character to be realised through the addition of depth and colour. Sergei's wife Alina (Dina Korzun) is also made active in the plot as she hovers around the periphery of Sergei's complicated existence within the country's spy system. Igor is in his teens, and while Alina is still attractive there is the little matter of Natasha to consider when weighing up one's opinion of Sergei. Infidelity itself is one thing, but ignoring a woman who is your wife and who is past her prime, is another thing entirely.

But that's the thing about this movie. People's motivations, the reasons they do things, are important. Achieving this level of engagement by the audience is no easy thing to do, and the filmmakers should be congratulated for spending little (it's not a 'big' production) to achieve a lot.

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