Half-brothers Yasha (Yakov) and Merab Papashvili live in Tbilisi. Yasha is a musician, and Merab works as a taxi driver. In 1987, Yasha (being half-Jewish on his mother's side) decides to repatriate to Israel with his family. Merab, being quite happy with his own lifestyle of a careless playboy and not thinking of emigration, accompanies them to Moscow and then to the Sheremetyevo airport.
The brothers want to drink champagne together one last time, but the local cafe would not serve any and sends them to the duty-free shop instead. Not quite realizing the possible consequences, easy-going Merab grabs his brother's travel document and crosses the border checkpoint, pretending to be him. He buys champagne in the duty-free, but then realizes that he can't walk back quite as easily. He runs frantically around the airport, and due to a series of misunderstandings ends up being escorted to board a plane (meant for Yasha) which immediately takes off.
While onboard, Merab befriends the charming adventurer Borya, who is dressed as a stereotypical Russian peasant and sports a balalaika. The plane lands in Vienna (a common practice at the time, due to the lack of direct flights from Moscow to Tel Aviv). As soon as they leave the airport, Borya breaks his balalaika apart to reveal a large stash of US dollars hidden inside (which at the time was illegal to own in the Soviet Union, let alone earn). He proceeds to buy himself a stylish outfit in the nearest supermarket and casually offers Merab a job. When the latter refuses, Borya gives him a taxi ride to the Soviet embassy and leaves, cheerfully anticipating to continue his spending spree.
Merab tries unsuccessfully to get help from the embassy, but is told that the ambassador is off till Monday, and even then his case can't be resolved quickly. When Merab tries to press the issue, he is promptly apprehended by the Austrian police, taken mugshot of, and handed over to Sokhnut. There he again meets Borya, who had already managed to lose all his money in a casino. Undaunted, he contemplates the new business opportunities. Both decide to let Sokhnut fly them to Israel.
Once in Israel, Merab again pretends to be Yasha to get through the immigration procedures. His new plan is to borrow some money from the local relatives, then return to USSR on a tourist visa and switch places with the real Yasha. He is received by Uncle Izya (Isaac) and his wife. After hearing his improbable story, Izya thinks he is a KGB spy and throws him out of the house at gunpoint.
After spending a night in an abandoned boat on the beach, Merab visits the local market and encounters a casual acquaintance from Tbilisi, a former policeman, who brings him to a lavish party attended by another acquaintance of both, wealthy and influential Tengiz. At first Tengiz seems sympathetic, but Izya, who happened to be among the guests too, denounces Merab as a KGB agent. Merab is beaten and thrown out.
After spending another night on the beach, Merab tries to contact the Soviet mission, but they wouldn't believe his story and suspect him of being an agent provocateur of some kind. Enraged, Merab follows the official to the parking and handcuffs himself to his car (he borrowed a pair of handcuffs from another protester a little earlier). However, this turns out to be a wrong car, and the official departs. Having no keys to the handcuffs, Merab unhinges the car door and carries it around for a while, before being able to break free.
Merab is approached by an American journalist Jane and confides his story to her. She introduces him to old Senya (Semyon), a World War II veteran who works in a huge industrial freezing facility and seems to be involved in some shady business. He proposes a plan to sneak Merab secretly through the borders back to the USSR, and they depart on a fridge truck. On the way, both drink and sing Russian songs. Senya grows increasingly paranoid and incapacitates several innocent bystanders who seem suspicious to him. The truck is stopped by the police, while Merab is driving. Senya pretends to be asleep and not knowing Merab at all. Merab tries to run, is shot in the leg, arrested, taken mugshot of (this becomes a sort of a running gag in the movie), and thrown in prison. There he quickly changes several cells, being beaten by both Muslims and Jews after his unsuccessful attempts to blend in.
Soon thereafter, Merab is bailed out of prison by Tengiz, who was alerted by Senya and after checking with mutual acquaintances in Tbilisi realized that Merab is in fact not a spy. They drive through the desert, when Senya confronts them on his fridge truck and stubbornly insists on his original plan. When Tengiz protests, Senya incapacitates him, then also Merab, and forcibly brings the latter to the border. Resigned to his fate, Merab bluntly obeys. Suddenly turned somber and mournful, Senya gives Merab his wedding ring and asks to put it on his wife's grave back in the USSR. (A flash-forward sequence during the opening credits, unexplained until now, reveals that in due time Merab made good on this promise). Senya walks Merab through the minefield, gives him directions and contacts, walks back and blows up on a landmine in what was possibly a deliberate suicide. Devastated, Merab remains on the site until captured by Jordanian border patrol. He is apprehended, taken mugshot of, and imprisoned as an Israeli spy.
Three years later Merab is released from the prison. Using Senya's contacts, he crosses to Turkey and travels to the border with USSR. His original travel document is probably lost or expired, and in any case not meant for reentry, so he has no legal way of entering. Left without other options, he wades across the border river, waist-deep, with arms outstretched, begging the unseen border guards not to shoot.
The film ends with yet another mugshot.Gérard Darmon - Merab Papashvili / Yasha
Natalya Gundareva - Inga, Yasha's wife
Oleg Yankovsky - Borya
Armen Dzhigarkhanyan - Senya
Yevgeny Leonov - Consulate official in Vienna
Leonid Yarmolnik - Borya's Israeli friend
Igor Kvasha - Rabbi
Mamuka Kikaleishvili - former policeman from Tbilisi
Despite the name of the movie, the document that sets the chain of events in motion is not a passport, but a Soviet exit visa.
The leading role (that of both brothers) was initially offered to Nicolas Cage.
Georgiy Daneliya makes a brief cameo appearance as an Arab with a donkey.