Morphia -- Film Review

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CANNES -- One of those extraordinarily dark Russian films that views life as a harsh wasteland unfit for human beings, Mikhail Balabanov's "Morphia" cuts no corners. Viewers swept up in the grim fascination of the story of a young doctor addicted to morphine are caught in a crossfire of admiration for the subtle storytelling and repugnance for what is often on screen. A more than respectable festival item, this will present major challenges for the general public.

The screenplay by the late Sergei Bodrov Jr. -- the talented young actor-director whose own films explored the dark side of Russian existence -- is based on autobiographical stories of writer Mikhail Bulgakov, author of "The Master and Margherita." Bulgakov, like Chekhov, was trained in medicine and at the time of the Russian revolution began his practice in a snowbound country hospital.

The fateful year is 1917 and young medic Mikhail Alexeivitch Polyakov (Leonid Bichevin) arrives at a remote train station on a bright winter day to replace an aristocratic, or at least non-proletarian, predecessor. It is the last we see of daylight before the film is plunged into a nighttime world of screaming, suffering patients and hair-raising emergencies. Fast-paced to tuneful player piano music, the film is divided into chapters with mocking titles like The First Injection, The First Amputation, Tracheotomy, Wolves. Each story delivers what is promised, and then some.

A true Russian hero, Polyakov hides his inner terrors behind an outward show of bravery and cool.

Patients arrive in horse-drawn sleighs vomiting, gasping for breath, with horrifying mutilations and burn wounds. His total lack of experience leads him to rapid consultations of medical texts scant minutes before operating. The stress of this rural ER leads Polyakov straight to the dispensary's morphine shelf. Aided by Anna (Ingeborg), a lovelorn nurse, he rapidly slides down the slippery slope of addiction, as the revolution builds in fury and violence.

Sepia tones almost drained of color highlight the beautifully designed period sets, fetishistically full of quaint objects like gramophones and wooden bathtubs. Balabanov's refined, essential narration is well-served by young Bichevin's unemphatic but on-key performance, while both offer a strong contrast to the live-wire tension on the operating table.

Festival de Cannes -- Market

Production company: CTB Prods.

Cast: Leonid Bichevi, Katarina Radivojevic, Ingeborga Dapkunaite, Sergey Garmash
Director: Aleksey Balabanov
Screenwriters: Sergei Bodrov Jr.
Producer: Sergei Selvanov
Director of photography: Aleksandr Simonov
Editor: Tatyana Kuzmichyova
Sales Agent: Intercinema, Moscow
Running time: 102 minutes
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