Fact-based spy drama Farewell revisits the Cold War (with Fred Ward as Ronald Reagan!) 

From Russia with Love

From Russia with Love

Throughout the late 1980s and 90s, the Bosnian director Emir Kusturica (he might still prefer the term "Yugoslav") was a lively, bear-like presence upon the world cinema stage — a hirsute enfant terrible who made expansive, award-winning films like Underground and Time of the Gypsies. So the initial sight of this onetime cinematic rock star as a somewhat dour, middle-aged Soviet informant in Christian Carrion's Farewell (L'Affaire Farewell), is jarring, to say the least. 

Kusturica has been known on occasion to act in other directors' films — he played the eccentric tech whiz Vladimir in Neil Jordan's The Good Thief, for example — but it's usually as an analog of his boisterous, oddball persona. As KGB Col. Sergei Grigoriev, a disillusioned intelligence honcho who seems to be simultaneously suffering from a midlife crisis, a family meltdown and a complete loss of faith in his country, Kusturica has to do a lot of thoughtful staring. But there's plenty of canniness in this casting as well: His glum demeanor occasionally betrays the proud, larger-than-life person lurking beneath the surface. Grigoriev is not a shrinking weasel, he's a wounded giant.

That giant, it turns out, had a major hand in helping bring down The Evil Empire. By passing on state secrets to small-time French businessman Pierre Froment — played with perfect wide-eyed affability by Guillaume Canet, himself also a director (Tell No One) of serious repute — the man code-named "Farewell" helped the West understand how weak the Soviet military really was, and how they were dealing with America's military build-up. Carrion's film does spend some time with the powers-that-be (Fred Ward does a pretty good Ronald Reagan impersonation), but it's mostly a two-hander focusing on the lives of Grigoriev and Froment, finding curious echoes in their experiences. 

Farewell is the kind of understated spy drama that John Le Carre used to expertly churn out, but it also has a curious, seemingly effortless sweep of its own, giving shape and color to historical processes that kids now read about in textbooks. Interestingly, there's more historical import in the scenes of Grigoriev's family life than in the scenes of Reagan conferring with his advisers (with John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance constantly, hilariously on in the background). For it is in the domestic scenario that we see the colonel's rebellious, troubled son listening to decadent Western pop music (mostly Queen) on his contraband Walkman. And it is also here that we see Grigoriev dreaming of the time he once spent in Paris. The ostensible secrets Grigoriev passed on may have had to do with guns and military buildups, but the real hero of the day, Carrion suggests, was the cultural freedom and allure of the West.

Email arts@nashvillescene.com.

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