Karen Shaknazarov’s brilliant contemporary take on the oft-filmed Chekhov novella “Ward 6” reps the versatile Russian helmer’s most iconoclastic film yet. Shakhnazarov takes the story, about the head of a hospital whose fascination with a patient in the lunatic wing leads to his own incarceration there, and transposes it into the middle of a faux documentary. Fragmenting Chekhov’s descriptions and putting them into the mouths of characters in mock interviews, juggling chronology, inserting silent homemovie footage and finally abandoning narrative altogether, the helmer deconstructs Chekhov to dazzling effect. Though it’s prime fest fare, the pic’s theatrical future appears iffy.
The film starts as a documentary about the asylum, incorporating interviews with actual mental patients. Fictional characters only incidentally wander into the frame, until the anonymous party shooting the film becomes increasingly interested in the case of Dr. Ragin (Vladimir Ilyin, whose standout perf snagged acting honors at the Moscow fest) and begins to record various characters’ highly colored accounts of what befell him. As flashbacks, silent camcorder footage and even audiotapes illustrate the good doctor’s history, the present-day Ragin, a sad sack in a ratty bathrobe, hovers on the periphery.
A former hospital director dispassionately describes the filth, abuse and corruption festering in the facility. Interviewees attest to the fact that, when appointed, Dr. Ragin did little to alleviate these conditions, adhering to a stoic philosophy that considered suffering, like death, inevitable. This position was hotly debated by a paranoid inmate, Gromov (Alexey Vertkov), whom Ragin spent much time with, finding him the only articulate conversationalist in the backwater town.
It seems that the ambitious Dr. Khobotov (Evgeny Stychkin, a Russian Kevin Spacey lookalike, down to the cold, sardonic little smile) seized on this pretext of doctor-patient fraternization to have Ragin declared incompetent. Consequently, Ragin fell into a deep depression and was locked away in Ward 6 by his former subordinates.
Up to this point, virtually everything recounted in the film comes verbatim from Chekhov’s story, chopped up and reshuffled though it may be. With the pic’s last two sequences, however, Shakhnazarov advances a cinematic questioning of the arbitrary line between sanity and insanity more compelling than any plot reversal. The first scene, a coed New Year’s Eve dance in the asylum, blends “actors” and “inmates” indiscriminately, building rhythmically as Ragin shuffles blankly in the arms of a beautiful (mad?) woman.
The final scene resonates more peculiarly, holding an unexpected image for several long, uncomfortable minutes. Unlike “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” in which closeups of Jack Nicholson showed viewers what to think, here auds are left wonderfully clueless.