MORPHINE – movie review

MORPHINE (Morphia)

Reviewed for &, linked from Rotten Tomatoes by Harvey Karten
Director: Aleksey Balabanov
Screenwriter: Sergey Bodrov, from short stories by Mikhail A. Bulgakov
Cast: Leonid Bichevin, Ingeborga Dapkunaite, Andrey Panin, Svetlana Pismichenko, Katarina Radivojevic, Yuri Gertsman, Aleksandr Mosin
Screened at:
The folks in the rural Russia of 1917 may not have predicted that the West would have an opioid crisis decades later, but they sure had one in miniature during that fateful year that upended their society. The film is “Morphine,” directed by Aleksey Balabanov, who died five years after its making at the age of fifty-four, leaving behind an impressive resume. Balabanov, whose “The Stoker” deals with an ethnic Yakut shell-shocked after serving in the Afghan-Soviet war, takes on this film written by Sergei Bodrov based on short stories by Mikhail A. Bulgakov. (Several books by Bulgakov are available in English from Amazon, including the 50th anniversary edition of “The Master and Margarita” but if you act fast you can pick up the novelist’s “Notes of a Young Doctor,” the last available copy selling for $94.01, and that’s for the used edition.)

Aleksandr Simohnov is behind the lens in the film’s settings, a rural area with primitive accommodations that promises to show a character’s fetching a ladder and climbing up to sing “If I Was a Rich Man,” but this remains a promise unfulfilled. Instead of a Hasidic community, though, we get a look at people who in 1917 still believed in Jesus, but they’d better alter their religious ideology overnight if they want to in with the workers’ paradise. The action takes place during the Russian Revolution, specifically between February 1917 when nice moderate socialists like Alexander Kerensky were defeated just months later as the Bolsheviks swept them away and took Russia out of the First World War.

If you’re an action fan, you’ll see plenty of that, though there are only a few scenes of Bolshevik soldiers demanding to see papers and, in one case, bashing an aristo taking his last ride on his horse and carriage. The action in this film is largely interior, though you’ll often see a group of nurses dressed like nuns racing hither and thither to save potential patients breathing their last in the snow. The film may look as though it were taking place around Yakuts, the world’s coldest place which once scored a Fahrenheit temperature of 84 below zero, but incredibly it’s only 126 miles as the crow flies from Moscow.

In the central role, Leonid Bichevin inhabits the role of Doktor Polyakov, a 23-year-old who must have been moved kicking and screaming from Moscow to the rural town around Uglich, which is today a tourist location in the Yaroslavl administrative district. Polyakov is virtually, even actually in two cases, bowed down to by residents who have been without a physician since the departure of one Leopold, a stroke of luck since on a busy day, the new sawbones has twenty-two patients. But here is a case of “Doctor, heal thyself.” Treating a dying patient by pumping on his chest and breathing into his mouth, he contracts diphtheria. Suffering pain form the malady, he has access to morphine, which serves like a beginner’s guide to heroin in those days. Since there may have been a shortage of Tylenol and Advil, he injects himself with morphine. When that wears off, another dose, until predictably enough he is addicted.

And boy, can Polyakov show you what it’s like to go through withdrawal, which he had to suffer several times when a nurse guards the limited supply and urges him to get treatment. He may have been angry with the woman, but he receives a door prize: an affair with nurse Anna Nikolayevna (Ingeborga Dapkunaite) and, in a couple of cases has his way with an aristocratic woman who does an FDR impersonation with a long cigarette holder while the doc fiddles around with her body.

And what’s a movie about a doctor without showing some gore? In one scene he amputates a woman’s leg after it was shredded in a flax grinder. Balabanov gets us a closeup of the poor lady’s limb. In another case—you vote on which is gorier—he performs a tracheotomy on a teen girl who could scarcely breathe, first looking up the procedure in a book, then moving on to slice open the patient’s neck. The internist-cum-obstetrician-cum-otolaryngologist-cum general surgeon delivers a baby after cleaning up a botched technique by a midwife who powdered the new mother’s vagina with sugar to tempt the unborn baby to come out.

To assure his credentials as a supply of artful indies, the director presents the action with desaturated color, helping to project the miserable atmosphere of the countryside, while trying to match the carnage on the operating tables with scenes of the doctor vomiting—in one situation throwing up on a toilet filthier than the worst facilities in Danny Boyle’s 1996 movie “Trainspotting.”

I suppose that the closest scenes of idiosyncratic rural life in American movies is “Twin Peaks,” but the shacks there are Trump towers compared to the snow-bound dwellings here. The film is well worth your attention, the chapters marked off in an idiosyncratic way as well as though this were a Lillian Gish entertainment. The people are all flawed—even the nurse having an affair with the doctor injects herself with morphine, envious, perhaps, and wanting to shake like her doctor boyfriend as would a person without clothes walking in the Uglich snow. The melodramatic finale, which takes place in a movie house offering a film that has the doctor and the entire audience laughing hysterically, is quite a surprise.

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In Russia with English subtitles.

111 minutes. © 2022 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – A-
Technical – B+
Overall – B+