Issue 27 (2010)
Karen Shakhnazarov: Ward No. 6 (Palata No. 6, 2009)
reviewed by José Alaniz © 2010
For its first ten minutes, Karen Shakhnazarov’s Ward No. 6  breaks new ground in the representation of the disabled in Russian cinema—at least the sort of studio-financed commercial cinema more Russians are likely to see.
The film opens with medium-shot interviews of actual patients at an institution for the mentally ill, an internat built on the site of the ancient Nikolo-Peshnoshskii monastery in the Dmitrovsk District (Moscow oblast). Without a trace of self-consciousness, these men (they are all men) answer questions about their lives and stories, hopes and dreams, posed by an off-screen interlocutor. Through jump cuts, ambient sound and environmental details (include a lolling cat in the background), the patients/inmates’ stories repeat some poignant patterns: histories of abandonment by parents who preferred to let the state assume their “retarded” children’s care, or else lost them through alcoholism and neglect; desires to leave the institution, marry and work regular jobs. These testimonials have the quiet power of the journalist Svetlana Aleksievich’s reportage, in which she transcribes her interview subjects’ utterances verbatim and at length, giving a sense of their own unmediated voices in all their anguish (see, for example, her Voices from Chernobyl [Chernobylskaia molitva, 1997]).
The final young man in this opening sequence, a believer, calmly intones, “Good is stronger than evil,” expressing his Christian faith—and cementing the long association in Russian culture between the disabled and the divine. At this point, Ward No. 6 begins to sink into some familiar clichés. The disabled are infantilized, de-sexed, made to seem holy.
Anton Chekhov ironicizes these clichés in his 1892 novella upon which the film is based (he, in fact, wrote the story partly as a response to and parody of Ivan Karamazov’s existentialist philosophy), but the makers of the new film seem to accept and reproduce them unquestioningly. Ward No. 6’s plot, in brief, involves the psychological breakdown of Dr. Ragin (Vladimir Il’in), director of a provincial psychiatric hospital, who eventually joins the ranks of his patients. In this he is “helped along” by Ivan Gromov (Aleksei Vertkov), a patient with a persecution complex whom Ragin finds equally fascinating and terrifying for his awful denunciations of human immorality, and whose “prophecies” finally cause the doctor’s mind to snap. Chekhov, himself a physician who had traveled widely in the hinterlands, expertly dissects the petty snobbery and mental laziness of an intellectual rotting away in a backwater, his psyche in the end too fragile to withstand a madman’s “truths.” At the same time, the story denounces the state’s bad faith and sordid treatment of the mentally ill—they live essentially as prisoners, kept far away from “polite society” in soul-rotting conditions, with no hope of escape. In this, very little has changed in 108 years. (Rubén González-Gallego, a rare escapee from this system, called the internaty a modern Gulag Archipelago in his Russian Booker prize-winning White on Black [Beloe na chernom, 2004]).
The film version also strives to condemn the status quo for this population, but the force of its critique is blunted by sentimentality, stereotype and a maudlin new ending which “softens” Chekhov’s original. In this, Ward No. 6 does little more than Andrei Konchalovskii’s equally-mawkish House of Fools (Dom durakov, 2002) to advance the depiction of the disabled as real people (as opposed to saints or infants)—though at least the new film avoids excruciatingly long dream sequences starring the Canadian rock star Brian Adams. So I can’t say there’s been no progress.
Shakhnazarov, since 1998 general director of Mosfilm and director of such films as Jazzmen (My iz dzhaza, 1983) and the cult hit The Messenger (Kur’er, 1987), has also produced more ill-conceived, sentimental fare, such as The American Daughter (Amerikanskaia doch’, 1995); Ward No. 6 seems to follow more in the pattern of the latter. This is regrettable, since even-handed representations of the disabled, at least in commercial films, remain rare in Russia. Moreover, it took Shakhnazarov and co-screenwriter Aleksandr Borodianskii more than twenty years to realize this work, and the film does boast notable performances from Il’iin (seen in much of Nikita Mikhalkov’s work) and Vertkov, who lends Gromov an unsettling mix of dignity and despair. In addition, Aleksandr Pankratov-Chernyi brings an oozing unctuousness to Ragin’s irritating friend by default, Mikhail Averianovich (the only character to inject something close to Gogolian humor, badly needed in this sad spectacle). The cinematography by Aleksandr Kuznetsov makes effective use of available light to showcase the patients/inmates’ impoverished living conditions. (We could also read Ward No. 6 as a companion piece to Shakhnazarov’s City Zero (Gorod zero, 1988), about a man who winds up in a provincial town which resembles some madman’s dream.)
But Ward No. 6’s most daring, if only occasionally effective, gambit is its mockumentary approach. Though the technique is quickly becoming ubiquitous (used in everything these days from The Office to Paranormal Activity to District 9 to Brűno), mockumentary involves the use of a documentary style (primarily hand-held camera; subject interviews and onscreen acknowledgment of the film crew) to drive the narrative. Intriguingly, Shakhnazarov at times has his characters interact with the internat patients, as when the institution’s present-day director Dr. Khobotov (Evgenii Stychkin) interrogates his charges, an uncanny mixture of real and reel. As often happens, however, the film falls flat when trying to come up with pretexts for the subjective camera technique, as when we view grainy scenes from Mikhail Averianovich’s video camera, which inexplicably has a broken microphone; this conveniently allows for his somber voice-over to accompany home-movie footage of the mentally deteriorating Ragin. The effect seems painfully contrived. (At other times, Shakhnazarov completely abandons the mockumentary conceit, mainly in scenes presented as flashbacks.)
Furthermore, Ward No. 6, an earnest attempt at highlighting a very real social and moral issue in contemporary Russia, relies too often on caricature to get its points across. We see this in everything, from the brief scenes when Ragin vacations in a Moscow presented as pure stereotype (traffic jams, display windows, strip clubs), to the changed ending: Ragin dances with the prettiest female patient at a New Year’s Eve party. An epilogue of sorts follows, in which Ragin’s neighbor attests to his moral qualities while her children giggle uncontrollably on camera. True, some have accused Chekhov’s original story of misanthropy and “hopelessness”—but of insulting its audience with unadulterated schmaltz? Never.
Oddly enough, the best parts of Ward No. 6 do not appear in the film. Aleksandr Gornovskii assembled unused footage from the internat location shoot into a documentary, Dominoes and Checkers Competition (Sorevnovaniia po shashkam i domino, 2009). Those seeking a more substantive cinematic exploration of disability in contemporary Russia are thereto directed.
University of Washington, Seattle
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1] Ward No. 6 debuted at the 2009 Moscow International Film Festival, at which Il’in received the award for Best Actor. The film has been entered as Russia’s nomination for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 2010.
2] The film was shot almost entirely on location at the former monastery, and used actual patients as extras and for minor speaking roles. In a prologue, Shakhnazarov briefly recounts the history of the building, its transformation from sacred site to psikhushka.
3] Ward No. 6 has an interesting, if convoluted, production history. Shakhnazarov and Borodyansky conceived and wrote the screenplay in the 1980s for an intended Italian co-production in which Marcello Mastroianni would have played the role of Ragin. (Mastroianni had already starred in another Italian-Russian Chekhov adaptation, Nikita Mikhalkov’s Dark Eyes [Ochi chernye 1987].) That original idea would have rendered the script in a more traditional mode, as a costume drama. The idea fell through due to creative differences between the Italian producers and the director. For the 2009 film, the main elements of Chekhov’s story were preserved and “updated” for the post-Soviet era. The film is set in 2007 and after.
Alaniz, José. “Cinema Without Barriers.” KinoKultura 16 (April, 2007).
Davydova, Anna. “Karen Shakhnazarov: Palata No. 6 snimali v nostaiashchem durdome.” Gazeta po-kievsky (7 September 2009).
Ward No. 6, Russia, 2009
Color, 83 minutes
Director: Karen Shakhnazarov
Script: Karen Shakhnazarov, Aleksandr Borodianskii, based on Anton Chekhov
Producer: Galina Shadur, Karen Shakhnazarov
Music: Evgenii Kadimskii
Cinematography: Aleksandr Kuznetsov
Editing: Irina Kozhemiakina
Production design: Liudmila Kusakova
Costume Design: Alla Oleneva
Cast: Vladimir Il'in, Aleksei Vertkov, Aleksandr Pankratov-Chernyi, Evgenii Stychkin, Viktor Solov'ev, Aleksei Zharkov.
Karen Shakhnazarov: Ward No. 6 (Palata No. 6, 2009)
reviewed by José Alaniz © 2010