A fed-up physician considers a morally problematic pact with an elderly private patient in “Simple Things,” writer-director Alexei Popogrebsky’s first solo effort. St. Petersburg-set pic captures the culture of bribery and corruption that complicates ordinary life for a low-paid member of the professional class. It’s a talky, urban chamber drama far removed in look and style from Popogrebsky’s debut, “Koktebel,” the laconic and lyrical road movie he co-helmed with Boris Khlebnikov. Pic’s bitter comedy is likely to strike a chord with the domestic audience, but international play will be limited to fests and national cinema events.
Main protag is fortyish anesthesiologist Sergei Maslov (Sergei Puskepalis, a theater director who’s only been in one other pic). Restless and bitter, Sergei’s having a mid-life crisis, with no empathy for his wife Katya (Svetlana Kamynina) or his hospital patients. He urges Katya to abort her pregnancy because he’s sick of the cramped communal living quarters they share with an exuberant Georgian and a shuffling, arthritic woman, and can’t imagine going through child-rearing again. Meanwhile, at work, he’s got a thing going with a pretty young blonde.
Putting the bite on patients for extra cash is standard procedure at the hospital and Sergei displays dazzling technique — inquiring, “What kind of anesthetic would you like, standard or … ?” while letting them know that standard comes with headaches, nausea and other alarming side effects.
Impressed by his brazenness, one patient recommends him to a slick agency that looks after the elderly who’ve signed over their flats. Sergei agrees to make daily house calls on their behalf for $50 a pop.
About 35 minutes into the pic, Sergei meets a cantankerous client, once-famous performer Vladimir Mikhailovich (Leonid Bronevoy, a real-life legit icon), whose constant pain necessitates regular injections. A prickly rapport develops between the two and the actor proposes Sergei send him off peacefully in exchange for a painting that would solve the latter’s financial problems.
A side plot involves Sergei’s teen daughter, who’s gone off to live with her electrician boyfriend.
Popogrebsky keeps Sergei’s actions ambiguous, a ploy that will irritate some viewers and delight others. Pic’s upbeat epilogue doesn’t match the tone of what came before.
Largely composed of medium shots and extreme closeups, the camerawork emphasizes Sergei’s feeling of entrapment. Thesping is uniformly strong, with Bronevoy a particular delight as the ornery actor.
Pic world preemed at Russia’s national fest in Sochi, where it nabbed picture and actor (Puskepalis) gongs. In Karlovy Vary competition, pic nabbed the actor prize for Puskepalis and a special mention for Bronevoy, along with gongs from the Fipresci and Ecumenical juries.