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Just What the Doctor Disordered

Morphia (2008)

The Times BFI 53rd London Film Festival

"Morphia" is the most nihilistic moviegoing experience possible, which is meant as a supreme compliment. It's based on the autobiographical stories of Mikhail Bulgakov, whose most famous work, "The Master and Margarita," is about the devil coming to 1920s Moscow. In this film though the young Dr. Polyakov (Leonid Bichevin) is in a remote rural hospital in 1917, and the devil is morphine.

He arrives into a blaze of hope, as he's the only doctor for miles around. There is snow on the ground, and everyone has a fur coat. He is proudly shown around by medical assistant Demiyanenko (Andrey Panin) and introduced to the nurses Pelageya (Svetlana Pismichenko) and Anna (Ingeborga Dapkunaite). His rooms are heated by the stove in the servants' quarters downstairs; they communicate to each other by banging on the flue and shouting. Everyone is excited to have a new, young handsome doctor there to look after everyone.

But it's not long before a man dies in his arms of diphtheria, frothing at the mouth and convulsing. And as surely as one thing leads to another, Polyakov soon charms Anna — she of the golden hands — into providing a shot of morphine to steady his nerves.

The rest is inevitable from that moment forward, but not quite predictable. Shot by Aleksandr Simonov in a clinical style that makes even the most awful sights curiously watchable, surprisingly it's the intertitles — in the style of a silent film — which had the audience moaning in fear: "wolves" and "the first amputation." The medical horrors of the time are unleavened with splatter or a desire to shock; it's the weeping relatives — whether the roughest peasant or the richest aristocrat — flinging themselves at the doctor's feet who are almost unwatchable. Director Alexei Balabanov is focused on explaining the truth of the young doctor's experiences. There is, mercifully, no CSI-style sensationalism, although the scenarios are just as gruesome. Instead there is the reality of very sick people on a table, with nurses frantically prepping, screaming relatives and Polyakov trying to hold himself together long enough to make the right cuts with his scalpels.

Mr. Bichevin is a handsome, intelligent actor, hidden behind his Trotskyite glasses so that we only rarely see his appealing smile. He is also extraordinarily brave, for the movie is so uncompromising that a Hollywood remake is almost certainly inconceivable. Mr. Bichevin takes us to some very dark places, and extraordinarily manages to do so without ever losing our sympathy. In "Morphia," there is no hopeful ending, no comic relief, no possibility of redemption, only perhaps the chance to dull some of the pain. It is absolutely wonderful to see a film and everyone in it plunge hell-for-leather into the abyss, box-office gross be damned.

The class layers of Russian society are clearly visible but not remarked upon, as it's taken for granted that we understand what is being shown. The revolution is happening in the big cities, and all the characters are aware but prefer not to discuss it — especially when the doctor has to detour to a grand house after being caught in a storm. The local aristocrats welcome him in with a smile and ask his opinion on the current class struggle. "For me, there are two classes: the sick and the healthy," he replies with a deferential smile. His new friend, Soborevskiy (Sergey Garmash), is not so tactful. And of course, at this time and in this place, no foreshadowing is really necessary.

Darren Aronofsky's "Requiem for a Dream" explored the reality of addiction with a similarly unflinching gaze — and is similarly impossible to imagine watching more than once. So why has "Morphia" been made now? The Bulgakov connection demonstrates authenticity, but as a writer he is more appreciated than actually read. The timeliness of the setting adds historical interest, but the focus on the addiction means it will not be studied for its knowledge of medicine at the time. Instead it seems to be a metaphor for Russia as it is now. Is Russia's future as bleak as this movie? If it is as well handled and moving as "Morphia," whether or not we like it, we won't be able to stop watching.


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