The bodies corporeal and politic are one and the same in Morphia, Aleksei Balabanov’s loose adaptation of writer Mikhail Bulgakov’s autobiographical Notes of a Young Doctor, about a young medic who relocates to the 1917 Russian countryside and quickly finds his health crumbling as fast as the country’s tsarist political foundation. Scripted by the late Sergei Bodrov Jr. (star of Balabanov’s Brother), the film, like the director’s prior Cargo 200, is a grim vision of deterioration, as Dr. Polyakov (Leonid Bichevin) is initially met with open arms by the village’s desperate locals but soon finds himself succumbing to a soul-corrupting addiction to morphine that Balabanov parallels to the little-seen but intermittently referenced revolution sweeping the nation.
Sculpted into episodic chapters marked by bleakly funny intertitle cards (“The First Amputation,” “Wolves”) that accurately forebode the nightmares to come, Polyakov’s tale is one in which disease takes root, then spreads—in this case, to his assistant nurse and lover Anna (Ingeborga Dapkunaite)—and then consumes, with the black night that engulfs much of the action becoming nothing short of a constricting funereal shroud. Religion and politics are torn asunder by the corrosive communist movement just as Polyakov (representative of the medical pillar) is destroyed by morphine and his patients suffer horrific and often fatal injuries while attempting to give birth, work, or get married. Society is besieged from all sides in Balabanov’s forlorn portrait, whose despair proves so potent as to carry with it a pungent whiff of contemporary critique.
More overpowering is the impression of individuals, and a country, mired in a netherworld crossroads where either direction offers no hope, be it toward a primitive past where midwives use sugar on vaginas to coax stubborn fetuses out of wombs, or toward a modern future still typified by a rudimentary scientific field in which doctors hastily consult manuals before operating. Morphia’s descent into physical and emotional hell is an ugly one, marked by raw, graphic surgeries, wailing peasants, and fat-cat aristocrats who foolishly scoff at the shifting political winds. And were it not for Balabanov’s periodically spied grim humor, felt not only in his narrative’s chapter headings but the back-and-forth futility of his characters’ movements (from house to house, locale to locale, death to death), his lack of sympathy for this bygone world might overwhelm the shrewd temperamental balance of his sociological inquiry.
As it is, however, the director, aided by Bichevin’s unshowy lead turn and Dapkunaite’s quietly heartbreaking complementary performance, wields his green-black aesthetic and matching worldview with blunt, forceful acuteness. Balabanov cuts deep into the wound with no remorse, yet his scalpel-sharp incision is made with an aim to heal rather than further injure. Consequently, when his story arrives at its final tragedy, one drenched equally in the cinema’s warm light and a mixture of joyous and maniacal laughter, there exists a sense of authorial deathbed comforting, of a filmmaker—after depicting so much blunt and (in a wolf chase sequence) storybook horror—exhibiting compassion for a man, and people, despoiled by their own personal and collective failings.
Morphia will play on March 1st and March 3rd as part of this year’s Film Comment Selects series. To purchase tickets, click here.