A young, inexperienced doctor in the provinces turns addict on the eve of the Russian Revolution in Alexei Balabanov’s beautifully structured “Morphia.” In style harking back to “Of Freaks and Men,” but showing the same unflinching fascination with the body’s corruptibility as “Cargo 200,” pic boasts near-perfect production design that’s theatrical without being stuck in a candy box. Paralleling the doctor’s decline with the rise of the revolutionaries, Balabanov unmistakably views the body’s deterioration as heralding the nation’s declining soul. Fest circuit fans won’t be disappointed, though arthouse play is likely to stay within Europe.
Based on semi-autobiographical tales by Mikhail Bulgakov, the script is credited to the late Sergei Bodrov Jr. (“Sisters”), though Balabanov had a hand in some changes. Pic retains its short-story roots by breaking up episodes with art-nouveau intertitles, a device that adds to the stylization while still connecting the narrative, set in 1917 and filmed in snowy expanses north of Moscow.
Dr. Polyakov (Leonid Bichevin) arrives in a small village. Though green, he’s a talented physician and a quick learner, helped by the medical textbooks he feverishly consults before each challenge. After an allergic reaction to a diphtheria vaccination, he has nurse Anna (the ever charming Ingeborga Dapkunaite) give him morphine to negate the effects.
What starts as one injection becomes dependence, much to Anna’s horror, especially as she’s falling for the dedicated doctor. He’s still able to meet the medical challenges of the community, including a gruesome amputation and an impromptu tracheotomy that are not for the fainthearted.
Socializing revolves around a local aristocrat (Sergei Garmash), but tensions mount in the neighborhood when Gorenburg (Yuri Gertzman), a Jewish Bolshevik paramedic, arrives in the next town. The winds of political change can be felt even in this small place, but the doctor’s focus turns increasingly toward scoring another hit.
If the doctor’s downfall is inevitable (though Bulgakov himself came back from his addiction), so, too, is the downfall of the world he inhabits, begun with optimism and good faith yet corrupted by dependence. As with other films, Balabanov shoots scenes of human bodies in their most damaged forms, balancing an almost comic sensationalism with a more pointed objective, forcing the viewer to question the directness and its meaning.
Though there is an obvious political message, the real draw here is the construction and lensing, awash in blacks, grays and whites that glow thanks to the superb lighting design. Certain scenes seem to be influenced by early images of anatomical investigations, while others, like an extraordinary sequence where wolves chase the doctor’s sled during a snow storm, come straight out of unsettling fairy-tale illustrations. Period detail is exacting, down to the use of contemporary recordings by famed cabaret artist Alexander Vertinsky.