The New Positive Hero: Masculinity and Genre in Recent Russian Cinema
Symposium 2009

Morphia
[Морфий]

Russia, 2008
Color, 107 minutes
Russian with English subtitles
Director: Aleksei Balabanov
Screenplay: Sergei Bodrov, Jr. Based on the story cycle “Notes of a Young Doctor” and the story “Morphia” by Mikhail Bulgakov
Cinematography: Aleksandr Simonov
Production Design: Pavel Parkhomenko, Anastasiia Karimulina
Cast: Leonid Bichevin, Ingeborga Dapkunaite, Andrei Panin, Sergei Garmash
Producer: Sergei Sel'ianov Production: STV

Since his debut at the twilight of the Soviet period Aleksei Balabanov has earned a reputation as a director who is equally at home making “movies” as he is making “films,” that is, who alternates comfortably between popular genre pictures and artistically complex, “serious” works of cinema. Typically ascribed to the former idiom are his action blockbusters Brother (1997) and Brother 2 (2000), the action-war film War (2002), and the melodrama It Doesn’t Hurt (2005). Usually numbered among his works in the auteur mode are his early adaptations of Beckett (Happy Days [1991]) and Kafka (The Castle, 1994), the polymorphously perverse period piece Of Freaks and Men (1998), and Cargo 200 (2007).

However, neither pole of the proverbial cineplex/arthouse dichotomy is, on its own, a particularly enlightening description of any of Balabanov’s films. His two Brother films were undeniably shoot-em-ups, but they also offered doses of political (even geo-political) philosophy, and the first of the two used the distinctive device of black screens between scenes. Cargo 200 is certainly a seasoned and serious artist’s distinctive vision of Soviet society on the eve of perestroika, but it also owes a great deal to the horror film. Balabanov’s latest offering, Morphia, is even more indebted to a formulaic tradition—the addiction film—and yet it, too, shows the continuing influence of Balabanov’s early training in experimental and auteur filmmaking.

The film is set in 1917 in a village in the Iaroslavl' region. Mikhail Alekseevich Poliakov (Leonid Bichevin) is a young doctor who arrives at the local hospital and begins well. He quickly establishes a good working relationship with the nurses and the pharmacist, and he shows skill and grace under pressure as he deals with the injuries and illnesses of the Russian provinces: amputating (in the most graphic detail imaginable) a girl’s crushed leg; delivering a breech baby; performing a tracheotomy on a child. After giving mouth-to-mouth to a dying diphtheria patient, Poliakov inoculates himself against the disease. An allergic reaction to the vaccine prompts him to ask the nurse, Anna Nikolaevna (Ingeborga Dapkunaite), to inject him with morphine to ease the symptoms of the allergy. The scene is preceded by a silent-film-style intertitle—“first injection”—which tells us the trajectory the rest of the film will take. The hallmarks of the addiction film then come as expected: the sweaty insomnia, the grungy-toilet hugging, the lying, the furtive raids on locked pharmacy cabinets, the sympathetic girlfriend who also becomes an addict. Yet the familiar tropes are offered to the viewer in an expertly structured narrative, and with a gorgeous and meticulously detailed production design by Pavel Parkhomenko and Anastasiia Karimulina that is enhanced by the soundtrack’s frequent use of vintage recordings of the legendary cabaret singer Aleksandr Vertinskii.

Despite being set in 1917, the film’s treatment of political themes is secondary to its concern with chronicling Poliakov’s transformation from fresh-faced whiz kid to lying junkie, and if there is a metaphorical link between addiction and revolution, it is very subtle. There is a political discussion at the home of a local landowner (who will later be more directly involved in the erupting class conflict), and Poliakov has run-ins with a politically active fellow doctor and the triumphant soldiers and sailors running rampant in the streets following the Revolution, searching for class enemies. Like his previous period piece Of Freaks and Men, however, the historical setting is largely a backdrop for the intrinsic elements of cinematic storytelling that continue to concern Balabanov as an artist.

Balabanov filmed Morphia from a screenplay by the late Sergei Bodrov, Jr., who intended to direct his own adaptation of Mikhail Bulgakov’s early autobiographical stories before his death in an avalanche in 2002.

Aleksei Balabanov

Aleksei Balabanov was born in Sverdlovsk (present-day Ekaterinburg) in 1959. He graduated from the translation department of the Gor'kii Pedagogical Institute in 1981. From 1983 to 1987 he worked as an assistant director at Sverdlovsk Studios. In 1990 he graduated from the Advanced Courses for Screenwriters and Directors in Moscow, where he completed a course in experimental and “auteur” filmmaking. Since his feature debut, Happy Days, he has directed 11 films, many of which have earned awards and acclaim at home and abroad.

Director Filmography

2008 Morphia
2007 Cargo 200
2006 It Doesn’t Hurt
2005 Dead Man’s Bluff
2002 War
2002 The River
2000 Brother 2 (screened at the Russian Film Symposium 2001 and 2003)
1998 Of Freaks and Men
1997 Brother
1995 Trofim (short)
1994 The Castle
1991 Happy Days

1990 From the History of Aerostatics in Russia (documentary)
1989 Egor and Nastia (documentary)

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