A Friend of the Deceased (Un Ami du Défunt), a Franco-Ukrainian film directed by Vyacheslav Krishtofovich and written—in Russian—by Andrei Kourkov, has a very attractive premiss. Tolia (Alexandre Lazarev), a translator living in Kiev and living a hand-to-mouth, hustling sort of existence not untypical of life in the former Soviet Union, finds that his rather glamorous wife (Angelika Nevolina), who has begun to make much more money than he does, is having an affair with a colleague at work. His drinking buddy, Dima (Eugen Pachin), who has underworld connections, has a sentimental attachment to family values and offers to procure a hit man to kill the lover. It seems only a drunken gesture, but when the information about how to contact the killer arrives, Tolia is so depressed that he substitutes his own photograph for that of the proposed victim and writes on the back of it where he will be—at the Café Art—at an appointed hour.
When the time approaches, however, the café closes early for the celebration of the proprietress’s son’s 18th birthday. Tolia is put out onto the street with no place to meet his assassin. So he gets drunk, meets an attractive young woman called Lena (Tatiana Krivitska), goes to bed with her and decides that life may be worth living after all. The problem is that, as Dima tells him, “Once you hire a killer, someone has to die.” As it is only a matter of time before he is found and killed, the only thing for Tolia to do is to hire another hit man, an ex-Red Army officer called Ivan (Sergiy Romanyuk), to kill the first one.
It sounds like a great comic plot, but the film, though it ends (as one may say) happily, is not exactly a barrel of laughs. What it is instead is an often moving portrait of the post-Soviet Ukraine where nearly everybody has more than one identity to survive—and one of the identities is generally unsavory. Tolia’s wife, like him, is trained as a philologist, but she works in advertising; Lena moonlights as a prostitute and and calls herself by a different name. Ivan lives a bucolic if primitive existence in a fishing camp when he is not murdering people for money—and not very much money. His asking price is $500 per hit, but he takes $350 from Tolia.
It is quite an accomplishment, I think, to put across to Americans, spoiled by prosperity which they have long taken for granted, the brave and sympathetic characters who make their living by doing what to us seems repugnant. The original hit man, Kostia (Constantin Kostychin), is a sort of post-Soviet yuppie, working overtime to support a pretty wife, Marina (Elena Korikova) and child and hoping to use the proceeds to pay for more education. In such a world, human relations—love and loyalty and family and friendship—are both more fragile and more meaningful. The require real sacrifice. When the more experienced Ivan fulfills his contract on the youthful Kostia, Dima expresses as much emotion as he is capable of. “Kostia’s been killed,” he says to Tolia, not knowing of the latter’s having arranged it. “That’s life.” And he remarks on the widow and the orphan.
“Was he a friend?” asks Tolia.
“What friend?” says Dima. “Friendship disappeared with our glorious Soviet past; now there are only business relations.”
As if to prove this proposition, Lena announces she is going to marry a rich client and go on an exotic honeymoon. “Nothing changes between us,” she cheerfully tells him, and she presents him with a bottle of brandy. “Drink to my happiness.” Then she adds, just like his now-vanished wife: “Do you need some money?”
In the end, it seems that all anyone can know or care about anyone else is what Dima says of Kostia—“that he was reliable; you could count on him.” Yet Tolia’s conscience has somehow survived his straitened circumstances, and he tries when he doesn’t have to to make some amends to the now-widowed Marina. The portrayal of the relationship between the two of them, conceived in barely suppressed desperation on both sides, is very moving and more than worth the price of admission.