Friends From France

Soko plays a French Jew helping Refuseniks
Soko plays a French Jew helping Refuseniks

A Russian joke from the 1970s:

How many Jews are there in Russia?

Six to eight million.

How many Jews would leave Russia?

Twenty to twenty five million.

During the communist era, when Russia was known as the Soviet Union, emigration was generally not permitted. Restrictions were loosened in the early 1970s, allowing a trickle of Jews to emigrate. A considerable number, however, were denied exit visas. They were called Refuseniks.

Jews in the West launched a campaign to alleviate the plight of Refuseniks, who would typically lose their jobs after applying for visas. Jewish activists abroad would smuggle books, religious articles, pharmaceuticals and even kosher food into the Soviet Union in a bid to help Refuseniks.

Friends from France, which was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this month, focuses on this movement from the perspective of a young couple from Paris, Jerome and Carole, who arrive in Odessa in 1979 under the guise of  being part of a French tour group exploring that Ukrainian city. They take in the sights by day and work on behalf of Refuseniks by night.

The film, directed by Philippe Kotlarski and Anne Weil, unfolds against the bleak backdrop of Soviet totalitarianism and decaying tenements.

Masquerading as cousins, Jerome (Jeremie Lippmann) and Carole (Soko) barely make it past airport customs, forced to surrender several pairs of blue jeans before being flagged through.

Once in Odessa, they visit designated Refuseniks, describing themselves as “friends from France.” Carole, a Zionist, quickly learns they would rather immigrate to the United States than to Israel.

Viktor, a Jewish physicist whose wife and son are already in Israel, is the most developed character in the movie. Despairing he will ever see them again, he gives Jerome a manuscript to smuggle out of the Soviet Union. Jerome hesitates, fearing he will be caught and imprisoned.

By mid course, Friends from France segues into the tangled realm of personal relationships as Carole and Jerome become embroiled in carnal liaisons with Soviet Jews.

The film fails to engage a viewer in the passions of the Refuseniks. Their lives are distant from us and their stories are not fully developed. Nor is the Refusenik theme of freedom sufficiently explored.

A postscript that takes place in Israel a decade later seems superfluous, if not anti-climactic.