Loosely adapted from Anton Chekhov’s short story “Ward 6,” Russian period drama “Ragin” unfolds in a mental hospital where, as is often the case with loony bin-set films, the doctors are nearly as crazy as the inmates. Pic reps the feature debut for TV-and-theater helmer Kirill Serebrennikov, who works hard to inject cinematic flavor with mobile lensing and editing tricks but hasn’t yet quite cracked pacing, although perfs hold up well here. Made for TV to commemorate the 100-year anniversary of Chekhov’s death last year, “Ward 6” may find release via further tube airings abroad before internment in ancillary.
Idealistic Andrey Yefimitch Ragin (Aleksei Guskov) is the head doctor at a provincial nuthouse near St. Petersburg at the end of the 19th century. He reads about new methods for treating hysteria developed by a Viennese doctor (Julian Wigand), ideas illustrated onscreen by fantasy sequences set in a stark operating theater that contrasts with the squalor of Ragin’s own filthy, poorly disciplined asylum.
Ragin’s curative efforts are constantly undermined by his unruly staff, characters partly drawn from the original Chekhov story and partly inventions of the script by Mikhail Ugarov, Dmitry Zverkov and Inna Tchachenko. Nurses regularly have sex with the patients and staff (a point definitely not in Chekhov), while the guards beat the patients (a point that is).
Ragin’s major rival is his junior colleague Evgeny (Dmitri Muliar), who prefers more brutal behaviorist methods of treatment, like a souped-up swivel chair that spins patients around continuously, which he demonstrates using a live monkey as the victim. (Visible onscreen distress of the real animal in this scene may worry animal welfare watchdogs.)
While Evgeny tries to finagle financing for his invention from the local aristos, Ragin spends more and more time in Ward 6, where the most disturbed male inmates are kept. There he engages in long philosophical debates with patient Ivan Gromov (Alexander Galibin), a former bailiff, who sardonically mocks Ragin’s elaborate theories. The two also bicker about the nature of suffering in classic Russian literary fashion.
Serebrennikov’s helming will provoke minor suffering for auds who might wonder what point exactly he and his scriptwriting troika are trying to make. Meanwhile, despite the title change, focus on additional characters dilutes attention paid to Ragin, a more complex, interesting and tragic figure in Chekhov’s original.
Matters are not helped by somewhat mannered, stage-style thesping, particularly from star and producer Guskov.
Editing by Kirk von Heflin is jerkily assembled, and pace slumps badly anyway in latter half, while lighting by d.p. Artur Gimpel and art direction by Pavel Parchomenko are slick, but not especially interesting.