Fantastic Fest 09: MORPHIA Review

Associate Editor, Features; Rotterdam, The Netherlands (@ardvark23)
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Fantastic Fest 09: MORPHIA Review

[This review originally appeared as part of Ard's coverage of the Rotterdam Film Festival earlier this year and reappears now with the film screening at Fantastic Fest.]

Last year Russian director Alexei Balabanov brought "Cargo 200" to the International Film Festival Rotterdam. For this year's festival he brought his newest film, and with the previous one in mind I approached it with some trepidation.

But "Morphia" is something completely different. It's a beautifully shot costume drama which tells its tale in a slow, almost leisurely fashion, and it doesn't shy away from using some serious eyecandy. That doesn't mean this director has mellowed though: during the press screening the whole audience was flinching a few times.

Four words: Best. Amputation. Scene. Ever.

The whole story takes place during the winter of 1917 in Russia, just as the revolution starts to spread out of the cities and into the countryside. And of course Balabanov wouldn't be Balabanov if he didn't use this to deliver a few more nasty kicks towards the communist regime.

More after the break...

...which is here.

A Short History:

"Morphia" is indirectly based on the memoirs and stories of Mikhail Bulgakov, an actual Russian country doctor who (amongst other things) described his growing problems with morphine addiction. These recollections were turned into a script by famous actor / director Sergei Bodrov jr., who wanted to make the film himself, but before he could do so he was tragically killed by an avalanche in 2002 during another shoot.

Balabanov was a friend of Sergei Bodrov jr. and he took over the script, turning it years later into this film. Although Balabanov says he's pleased with the end result he always adds that Sergei might have made the script into an even better movie.

The Story:

Young doctor Polyakov arrives in a small village deep in the middle of a Russian nowhere. To his surprise he finds the local hospital to be in excellent shape: the instruments and medical books are of high quality, the pharmacy well stocked. The nurses are experienced, pretty and do not fail to notice the new handsome young man in their midst. Also, the people are respectful and very happy to see him as they've been without a doctor for more than half a year. Rumors of an impending revolution seem to take place in a world far, far away, as does the ongoing war with Germany.

In short: all seems perfect if somewhat parochial. Soon the ambitious Polyakov is hard at work saving patients left and right, even performing the odd miracle or two and enjoying some romance on the side.

But below the surface something is wrong. On his first night Polyakov runs the risk of getting infected by a patient suffering from diphtheria, and when he gets vaccinated he turns out to be allergic to the vaccin. Annoyed and stressed, Polyakov fights the symptoms with a dose of morphine, an accepted and correct practice.
Unfortunately he seriously underestimates the side effects of this particular medicine and, as winter sets in, the doctor slowly but surely slides down towards a fullblown morphine addiction...

The Movie:

Wow. The first shot shows a train arriving at a station in the middle of a snowy landscape, and immediately the contrast with "Cargo 200" is apparent: the crisp detail and colors jump from the screen. What follows is a lovingly detailed description of the daily life and work of a country doctor, told in a very episodic fashion complete with dividing title cards.

It takes some time for the morphine addiction plot to really kick in, but until then Balabanov sure doesn't make things boring. Polyakov has a fling with a decadent aristocrat widow (insert some typically European arthouse nudity here), there is fun to be had in the clashing between scientific medicine and local superstition, and of course there is always the desolate but beautiful scenery to gawk at. I have no idea of just how accurate this recreation of 1917's Russian village life is, but it sure does look and feel authentic.

And I already mentioned you get shown an amputation in agonizing detail. For this scene Balabanov actually used a real surgeon whose hands resembled those of actor Leonid Bichevin, and man... this creates some very memorable and above all believable shots.
It is not the only scene in the movie which might make your eyes water a bit: doctor Polyakov's work includes some other interesting stuff, but I'm not going to spoil everything here.

But once the addiction starts to become problematic, so does the movie. Not that "Morphia" ever gets bad, but we've seen this sort of story many times before and the progress of the affliction proceeds exactly as expected. The only difference is this time it takes place in Russia at the start of the 20th century.
Interestingly Balabanov does show a parallel between Polyakov's decay and the country's descent into communism, but he never does it too explicitly. For starters he shows a lot of rot is already there, in the decadent behavior of the rich landowners and aristocracy. Judging by past work of Balabanov this shows a lot of restraint on his part. Maybe out of respect for the script's origins?
Who knows.

On the acting front everyone seems natural if a bit detached. Standouts are Leonid Bichevin as doctor Polyakov and Ingeborga Dapkunaite as the nurse who grows to love him and shares his decline. But even they cannot compete with the movie's real star, which is the stunning set design and art direction. The camerawork shows all this in long, restful shots which make a nice difference from all the shakycam violence I've been seeing elsewhere during this festival.


With "Morphia", Balabanov tells a run-of-the-mill addiction story but keeps things surprisingly beautiful and compelling. Unlike "Cargo 200" this is a movie you could actually take home to your parents, provided they can deal with the unflinching look at the surgical procedures.

Recommended, but don't expect the plot to rock your world.
(Gorehounds may want to sniff at this one too, if for the wrong reasons...)

For what it's worth, the Rotterdam Festival viewers gave this an audience score of... believe it or not, AGAIN a 4.1 out of 5, same as "Il Divo", "Breathless" and "Bronson".

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Find more info on the "Morphia" page of the IFFR website
My review of Balabanov's previous movie, "Cargo 200"

CuttermaranFebruary 5, 2009 12:59 PM

I love the work of Balabanov, and Sergei Bodrov jr.- God that's a must see!
Hopefully it's not too artsy like "Of Freaks and Men".
But since the screenplay is by Bodrov jr., who once said, he would prefer telling stories about men rather then freaks, I'm very excited about this one.