Dir: Alexei Balabanov. Russia. 2009. 102min.
Alexei Balabanov’s ongoing chronicle of modern Russia returns to the past, this time to the 1917 revolution. But rather than provide the focus of the film they act instead as a counterpoint to the main story of a young doctor’s drug addiction. Much rawer than but just as stylized as the director’s Of Freaks And Men, this is not for the faint-hearted. A bloody amputation and a tracheotomy are shown in close up here and these scenes are gory enough to complicate the commercial future of this uncompromising picture. A warm reception is guaranteed at festivals however.
Based on Mikhail Bulgakov’s Notes Of A Young Doctor, the film follows 23 year old Dr Polyakov (Bichevin) on his first assignment in a small remote town in the autumn of 1917. Replacing a much more experienced practitioner, he finds a staff of one paramedic and two nurses who are expected to deal with every kind of medical problem. Luckily his predecessor left a well-stocked library which provides answers for most of the problems he has to face. But young Polyakov needs more than textbooks to build up his confidence and after he cures himself of an infection with a shot of morphine, he begins to use larger and larger doses of the drug which give him ever more courage and self-assurance. As the winter advances, his dependence becomes desperate and he finally has to commit himself to a mental hospital in a nearby city for treatment.
Written by the late Sergei Bodrov Jr, the film is divided into a series of chapters almost like diary entries giving the film a slightly disjointed continuity. Each chapter deals with a different detail of Polyakov’s life - the vicious weather of the harsh Russian winter, the solitude which leads him into a tortured affair with one of the nurses (Dapkunaite), the uneducated peasants asking for help when it’s already too late, the local landowner eager to discuss the latest news from Moscow, one of several character sketches that are occasionally brutally sarcastic. The overriding theme, however, is Polyakov’s addiction, with the October revolution suddenly exploding in brutal and uncontrollable chaos after echoing faintly in the background.
Alexander Simonov’s desaturated images enhance the particular atmosphere of the period, helping Balabanov to successfully recreate a miserable past. The dispassionate gaze of his camera invites the audience to form its own opinions, but although the characters may be silly, melancholic, even pathetic, there is little that is admirable in any of them. Bichevin’s haunted performance offers a solid backbone keeping the picture together and the film’s final scene hints at Balabanov’s jaundiced view of both the Church and cinema, equally impotent to help those in need.
As for the gruesome medical procedures, Balabanov says the camera showed real operations performed by a real surgeon with the actors providing only the facial expressions.
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Sergei Bodrov Jr
Based on Mikhail Bulgakov’s Notes Of A Young Doctor