A Fine Madness

11/25/2009 4:00 AM |

Ward No. 6
Directed by Karen Shakhnazarov

Social misfits often harbor an irrational (except in tyrannical states) persecution phobia, a fear that their otherness will become punishable by law—or at least by some extra-judiciary cabal. As the circles defining artists and eccentrics tend to overlap, this anxiety frequently manifests itself in art, from the senseless bureaucratic injustice in Kafka to Hitchcock’s wrong-man manhunts. But writers and filmmakers often also reveal a deeper, more specified fear of their own mental processes; a free capacity for contemplation distinguishes the thoughtful types from the masses, resulting in a worry among the former that the exposure of their private heresies will result in oppression by the institutions representing the latter: Winston Smith’s struggle to avoid prosecution for thoughtcrime, Randle McMurphy herded into the folds of conformity through coerced lobotomy. Ward No. 6, Russia’s bleak and vigorous submission to the Academy Awards, taps into this brand of psychological apprehensiveness, of mental-as-political repression. And, as a result, it’s a deeply unsettling film.

Adapting a Chekhov story of the same name, Shakhnazarov and co-writer Aleksandr Borodyansky move the story to the present day and adopt a pseudo-documentary aesthetic to tell it: there are interviews with staff and patients, even a history of the eponymous psych-unit told in elegant re-enactments. (Shakhnazarov shoots these with a graceful and fluid camera that contrasts with the faux-improvisatory style often used throughout.) The filmmakers set up Ward No. 6 like a horror movie; if, after 20 minutes, an announcement had been made that a killer virus was spreading through the hospital, I would readily have bought into it. It’s not only that the handheld “realism” has transcended Must See TV to become a dominant trope in scary movies (District 9 and [Rec]/Quarantine, as well as Cloverfield and Paranormal Activity in a slightly different way); it’s Shakhnazarov’s mise-en-scene: the ramshackle grounds that could be housing a Hostel hostel, the haggard, stubbly, shadowy faces and despairing yet otherwise lifeless eyes of the rumpled men who dot the hospital grounds and consume the frames’ reargrounds: they’re zombies, but in a cognitive sense—not a hungry-for-brains one.

Shakhnazarov’s film achieves a frightening authenticity with (what must be) a combination of professional and non-professional performers; neither group condescends to the flashy theatrics that mark the downfall of so many portrayals of madness. The performances, especially of the two remarkable leads Vladimir Ilyin and Aleksei Vertkov, aren’t rooted in the imitation of superficial gesture but in a thoroughly realized internality, a spiritual hopelessness that organically seeps out through wet red eyes. Ilyin plays Ragin, the former hospital-chief who became an inmate himself under the influence of a patient, Gromov (Vertkov), whom the doctor takes to calling a prophet; their philosophical tête-á-têtes, in which Gromov’s contemptuous cynicism breaks down the doctor’s assumptions, exposing the meaninglessness of Ragin’s hitherto sheltered life, play out like mental combat.

While slightly unstable—though, as one doctor (Yevgeni Stychkin, who could make a fine Bond villain one day) notes in the film, we’re all a little disturbed; whether you’re out here or in there is merely the luck of the draw, Ragin suggests—neither seems particularly insane, just depressed and out-of-step with dominant societal attitudes, especially about mortality and the meaning of life. Regardless, they’ve been placed in cultural isolation, without opportunity for appeal, with the drooling, toothless crazies, forced to live out their feeble and ephemeral existences, with equally feeble and ephemeral minds, fully cognizant that they are merely on a miserable and inexorable path toward death. Shakhnazarov might be suggesting that such is the condition of modern Russia, still operating under a Soviet-style lockstep mentality with zero tolerance for deviation. If so, that’s not a problem unique to the lands east of Europe.

November 27-December 3 at the Walter Reade Theater