Farewell is a movie in the grand tradition of European political filmmaking and Christian Carion is a noble successor of directors like Costa-Gavras, Elio Petri and Gillo Pontecorvo. His previous movie, Merry Christmas, brought humanity to the trenches of World War I and exposed the absurdity and hypocrisy of war. Farewell brings to life a forgotten episode of Cold War politics and espionage. Like in many political movies, Carion and his screenwriter, Eric Raynaud, start from facts. In this case they adapted Serguei Kostine’s book Bonjour Farewell, about the real-life spy Vlamidir Vetrov, but most of the details were changed for dramatic effect.
So we follow Sergei Gregoriev (Emir Kusturica), a high-ranking Soviet official with access to critical information, who starts passing confidential documents to the French secret services, the DTS, with the noble intention of causing a rupture in the Soviet regime. Sergei, codenamed Farewell (so the Russians will think he’s working for the Americans and not the French), was once a sympathizer but now believes that the revolution has been betrayed and that Russia needs change.
Working as a courier between Sergei and the DTS is Pierre (Guillaume Canet), a French engineer working and living in Moscow with his wife, Jessica (Alexandra Maria Lara), and two children. Pierre is chosen because he’s basically a nobody: he keeps a low profile; the KGB barely know he exists; his record would be clean were it not for the fact that he’s married to a woman from West Germany. As Jessica aptly puts it, he’s no James Bond. That’s why he’s ideal for the role.
As the documents that Sergei leaks grow in importance, the President Mitterrand (Philippe Magnan) informs President Reagan (Fred Ward in a short but good role) of a list of Russian spies working in the USA, and the CIA gets involved. As arrests are made and countermeasures implemented, the Soviets realize there’s a traitor amongst them. Unbeknownst to Sergei and Pierre, a circle starts closing around them. Of course in a story where the players in the extremities are Reagan, Mitterrand and Gorbachev, it’s the little people in the centre who’ll get screwed.
Farewell, in spite of very tense moments, could be a more exciting movie. Espionage, real espionage, is a dull, slow-moving, unphotogenic activity. It’s basically just people taking photos of confidential documents, meeting at parks and subway stations, and maintaining deception for as long as possible, probably knowing, deep down in their minds, that sooner or later they’ll get caught.
So why watch this movie? For many reasons, the least of which is its insight into an era that may seem remote but that still shapes the world we live in. The Soviet Union ended less than twenty years ago and Carion’s camera captures its everyday life very well: the queues for foods and supplies; the silent discontent; the monumental architecture and historical statues; the arbitrariness of power; the omnipresence of a tight network of surveillance and repression.
Another reason, far more interesting, is the pleasure of watching Emir Kusturica’s amazing performance. Who knew the director of Underground worked so well in front of a camera as behind one? He plays a difficult role because Sergei isn’t an ideal hero. Although selfless in his work for the French – he refuses pay for his services -, although he works in behalf of his son, so that he may grow up in a better Russia, Sergei’s personal life is self destructive. Engaged in an affair, he drifts apart from his wife; and for his son he’s just a symbol of the authority that bans Queens music and other decadent Western culture. How easy it’d be if Sergei could just open himself up to him! But he can’t for their safety, and Kusturica perfectly plays this man burdened with secrets, loving but unloved, with a melancholy and gravitas that never abandon his face even in rare moments of happiness.
A final reason is the chemistry between Canet and Kusturica. The friendship and loyalty that grows between their characters constitutes the emotional core of the film. From their first meeting, inside a darkened car, it doesn’t seem they’ll get along. Sergei, aware of the importance of his work, initially feels slighted for working with an amateur. But they’re similar souls. Pierre is a foreigner and Sergei, a Francophile, feels like a foreigner too. Pierre becomes his access to contraband – music, poetry, champagne. And for Sergei, who realizes the risks of treason, Pierre and his family become his responsibility.
The narrative can be messy at times, even elliptical. Bits seem to be missing that could give more substance and clarity to the web of intrigue the secret agencies create to outsmart each other, and the movie could have explored further the moral consequences of the indifference the secret agencies show to the well-being of their agents. But the good performances just throw a blanket over these minor nuisances.
Spoken in French, Russian and English, the movie also has performances by the always reliable Willem Dafoe and Niels Arestrup (remember César from A Prophet?), and even an unexpected cameo by Diane Kruger. A fine example of what international cinema should be, Farewell succeeds thanks to the cast’s exceptional talent and the harrowing emotions that run through the narrative up until the inevitable conclusion in this story of, power, trust and oppression.
Director: Christian Carion
Cast: Emir Kusturica, Guillaume Canet, Alexandra Maria Lara, Willem Dafoe, Fred Ward, Niels Arestrup, Ingeborga Dapkunaite
Runtime: 113 min