WARD NO. 6 (Karen Shakhnazarov, Aleksandr Gornovsky, 2009)

An imaginative updating of Anton Chekhov’s 1892 story, Palata No. 6, co-directed by Karen Shakhnazarov and Aleksandr Gornovsky, begins and ends with documentary interviews of actual residents of a mental health facility. Indeed, throughout, such interviews are mixed with faux-interviews of fictional characters, including fictional patients, from some of whom we hear bits and pieces of the original story’s narration and dialogue. The film’s focus is the hospital’s chief of staff, Andrei Ragin (Vladimir Ilyin, best actor, Moscow). It is related by camera-facing colleagues, staff, patients and villagers, suggesting that these characters also are being interviewed by the documentarians, whom we see in an objective shot as they tour the facility. Frustrated by the lack of culture in the facility’s provincial location, Ragin draws consolation from his interactions with the one soul there whom he considers his intellectual equal—not one of the other doctors but one of the patients: Gromov (Aleksei Vertkov, raw, brilliant), young, angular, working-class, philosophical; Ragin deems him a prophet. Ragin himself becomes a patient at the institution, whereupon, demanding along with Gromov a moment’s stretch out in the yard, he is beaten up by his successor, Dr. Hobotov, a summa cum-laude graduate of the School of Caligari. A dark cloud hovers: the sense that no one expects anyone to be cured of mental illness anytime soon.
     A remarkable set-piece aching with loneliness and tenderness: punctuated by a melancholy Christmas tree topped by a surreal star, the New Year’s dance, for which occasion Hobotov’s male patients and a unit of female patients have been brought together.
     Commenting bleakly on the state of post-Gorbachev Russia, this film juggles and correlates three schemes that we use for organizing and identifying experience: freedom and captivity; sanity and insanity; fiction and non-.

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