Farewell

Starring Emir Kusturica, Guillame Canet, Philippe Magnan, Fred Ward, Alexandra Maria Lara, and Ingeborga Dapkunaite. Directed by Christian Carion.
Rated M (mature themes and infrequent coarse language). 109 min.

This French, sub-titled film is an absorbing espionage thriller. Set in Russia in 1981, a high-ranking KGB officer, Colonel Sergei Gregoriev (Emir Kusturica) needs someone to act as a contact with the West to help him bring change to the Soviet Union regime. He is forced to recruit a reluctant Pierre (Guillaume Canet), a French diplomat who lives with his wife and children in Russia. Sergei asks Pierre to pass confidential documents to the West, and the documents have the code name, “Farewell”, which gives the film its title. The documents pass intelligence information to the US, through France, to show that Russia has detailed knowledge of US technological expertise in the race for supremacy. Nations try to outguess one another, and betray each other often to try and keep secrets to themselves. 

Pierre and Sergei form an unlikely team. Their friendship is slow to develop, but gradually they come to respect each other. Both have to deal with their consciences and they know that their role as spies complicate their personal life; the two of them are idealistic, and they realise that what they are doing might wreck their relationships with their wives, Jessica and Natasha (Alexandria Maria Lara, and Ingeborga Dapkunaite), and their children. The passion they share in common, however, is enjoyment of the French culture, and this serves to bond them closely in unlikely ways.

The film is directed like a 1970s cold war thriller. It presents the espionage world realistically, rather than attempting to emphasize it by playing around with smart gadgetry in the style of James Bond. The opening to the film tells us that the story is based on real events, and the plot that unfolds focuses on Sergei’s ambition to contribute to the fall of the Soviet bloc, and Pierre’s reluctance to accept that he is an espionage spy. Both Canet and Kusturica are very effective in their roles and lend their parts great plausibility. Wider espionage distrust spawns distrust in personal relationships as well, and nearly everyone is affected by the malaise of dishonesty. One of the few relationships to survive in a sea of lies about lies is that between Sergei and Pierre. They remain loyal to each other.

The look of the film is very appealing. The photography uses the city of Moscow to great advantage and the cinematography by Walter Ende is excellent. In many instances the sharpness and clarity of the photography heightens the tensions of the plot. Philippe Magnan and Fred Ward play the parts of President Mitterrand and President Reagan, respectively. Fred Ward’s attempts to mimic Reagan skirt the edge of caricature, and reinforce the point that a major strength of the film lies with development of the relationship between Pierre and Sergei. Espionage becomes a catalyst for understanding both of them, struggling to survive in a political climate built entirely around the relentless pursuit of cold war supremacy.  

Overall, this is a smart, well-directed, espionage film that has a taut psychological edge that most spy movies of its kind don’t have. The plot is compelling (partly because we know a lot of it is true), and the moral issues it highlights, that of conscience and personal loyalty to others, have relevance well beyond the film’s immediate story-line.  It is a thinking person’s movie, presented intelligently, and it unquestionably entertains. The last scene in the movie gives the title of the film an unexpected and provocative second meaning.

Hopscotch Films.   Out July 1, 2010.

Peter W. Sheehan is associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.


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