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Review: 'Friend of the Deceased' unrelentingly glum

Web posted on: Wednesday, June 17, 1998 4:19:16 PM

From Reviewer Paul Tatara

(CNN) -- Movies don't necessarily have to be monuments to joy and the perseverance of the human spirit in order to be agreeable -- not by a long shot. But sometimes you find yourself watching a perfectly well-made film that's so possessed by glum aspirations, your mind starts to drift to anything you've ever seen with a glimmer of hope in it, something that can clear your palate of the unrelentingly bitter story that's unfolding in front of you.

"Friend of the Deceased," Ukrainian director Vyacheslav Krishtofovich's morose take on the grayest emotions in the very politically gray city of Kiev, Ukraine, is one of those films. The performances are just fine, and there's some nice camera work, too, but it's a hugely single-minded grind. I was very pleased when it was finally over with, even though I seldom get to see something this purposeful nowadays. Everybody in the movie seems to need a laxative, or, at the very least, a stable government.

Everything about the movie is so depressed and downbeat, it took me a while to realize that the woman the main character is living with at the beginning of the story is supposed to be his wife. Alexandre Lazarev stars as Anatoli, an unemployed translator who's starting to get desperate for some money as well as, it turns out, some love. His wife, Katia (Angelika Nevolina), barely speaks to him and spends her nights in a bed of her own.

She's the breadwinner of the family, and this evidently has caused a rift in the marriage. The two act more like barely speaking roommates than a married couple, and it's not long before Katia abandons Anatoli in favor of her sportscar-driving lover. This moment is even photographed in a distant manner, with Anatoli watching silently from across the street as she leaves.

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In a fit of despair (albeit the kind in which the tormented person's blank expression never betrays his feelings), Anatoli gets a friend to hook him up with a hit man who will kill the lover for a few hundred dollars. While on the phone with the would-be killer, Anatoli suddenly decides that maybe a more productive course of action would be to have himself rubbed out. He mails the hit man a photo of himself and the location of a cafe where the murder can take place. Then, a couple days later, he puts on a suit and strolls to the cafe to meet his maker.

At the cafe, he instead meets a sexy young woman named Lena (Tatiana Krivitska, whose winsome performance enlivens things a little). Lena, it turns out, is a prostitute. She takes Anatoli home before the hit man can carry out his duties, and sleeps with him for free, just because she likes him. This gesture is enough to make Anatoli want to go on living, so he hires another hit man to rub out the first one before he finishes the job.

Comedy so dark you need a flashlight

This sounds like the set-up to a pretty good black comedy, but if there's any comedy in this thing, it must be so black you need a flashlight to see it. Anatoli, reeling from the guilt of being involved in a murder, ends up visiting the widow of the deceased hit man (played by Elena Korikova), posing as the guy's friend. He wants to know if there's anything he can do to help her in her time of sorrow, but they end up having a fitful relationship that's an incredibly uncomfortable thing to watch.

The prostitute, Lena, who also goes by the professional name of Vika, winds up getting engaged to a guy who beats her and has plans of selling her into white slavery. Everybody else just drinks and bitches, and rightfully so. That's exactly what I would do if things ever got this morbid.

Perhaps the film's biggest problem (I couldn't exactly call it a failing) is that Anatoli is designed as something of a moral cipher, but you're supposed to simultaneously wish for his bad luck to change. He discusses cold-blooded murder so casually, I couldn't think of any reason why I should give a damn what happened to him. He would eventually get what was coming to him, anyway, even if he ended up spending the rest of his life in this film's version of Kiev, where everyone is already morally dead.

The fact that they're still all walking is just about the only thing they have going for them, and that wasn't enough to maintain my interest.

"Friend of the Deceased" contains nudity, sex, and rather excessive drinking if you're at all concerned about the characters' livers. That the most likable character is a desperate prostitute is all you need to know. Rated R. 105 minutes.

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