Issue 58 (2017)

Iurii (Gosha) Kutsenko: Doctor (Vrach, 2016)

reviewed by Aleksandr Prokhorov© 2017

vrachIurii Kutsenko’s directorial debut takes a close look at the life of a Russian provincial doctor and attempts to eschew the conventions of contemporary medical television drama.  The film stars Kutsenko himself in the lead role of Iurii Mikhailovich, a neurosurgeon specializing in brain tumors, and consists of several loosely connected episodes about the doctor interacting with colleagues and patients over the course of five days. The filmmaker notes that for two years he helped his mother to fight cancer, and his observations of hospital life influenced his project. He met a lot of doctors, saw a lot of suffering, and wanted to convey the daily routine of an ordinary hospital. To make his film more authentic, Kutsenko filmed in one of Moscow hospitals, included documentary footage from craniotomies and awake brain surgeries.  To immerse himself in the atmosphere of medical profession, Kutsenko even lived in a hospital during the production stage of the film. As Kutsenko notes: “This is a set of stories that I saw and heard, my film is dedicated to all those who were not saved and to doctors’ hard work”.

The filmmaker also wanted to depict life of a doctor outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg, to show how medical professionals and patients cope with their physical and emotional problems in Russia’s heartland. Kutsenko sets his film in a mid-sized provincial city. His director of photography, Evgeniia Opel’iants, stitches the film’s slightly surreal mise-en-scène from the depressing and claustrophobic interiors of a hospital ward and oneiric aerial views of the Volga river and the city of Saratov.

vrachDespite the director’s efforts to create an authentic atmosphere of hospital life, many situations, including the representation of professional community, the interaction with patients, ethical dilemmas, and romantic entanglements, all call for comparison with the aesthetics and plot turns of such American dramas as ER (1999-2009) and Grey’s Anatomy (2005-). In the center of the film is the doctor-hero who performs wonders. He is surrounded by a supporting cast of doctors, nurses, and secretaries. Each encounter with a patient combines a medical problem with an insight into complications related to the patient’s social status. The choice of such fields as neurosurgery and oncology allows the filmmakers to focus on dramatic scenes of removing bone flaps from skulls and melodramatic scenes, in which characters discuss how many days and weeks they still have before the inevitable end. One reviewer even refers to Iurii Mikhailovich as “Dr. House with the Russian soul” (Prishchepova 2016). Within the diegetic world of the film, characters also invoke Russian spinoffs of medical television series, such as Residents (Interny 2010-2016), and ironically compare  Iurii Mikhailovich with the Resident’s character, Doctor Bykov. 

While the similarities with American television drama are hard to miss, the figure of the doctor-hero is profoundly Russian and grounded in the tradition of kenotic doctors of Russian literature rather than American television. Like Iurii Zhivago, Iurii Mikhailovich possesses the intuitive talent of a diagnostician and a gift of helping his patients and their relatives with a word of hope and consolation. The doctor’s word has the power of a life-giving force or, as Iurii Mikhailovich puts it, he is in the profession of prolonging human life. In contrast to Gregory House’s staunch belief in the scientific method and logical deduction, Iurii believes in science only to an extent. He might be a loner like House but for a totally different set of reasons: Iurii is a little bit of a Fool in Christ, rather than a cynical rationalist.
In contrast to Western medical drama, Kutsenko’s filmpays little attention to financial matters.  If in American medical dramas, the  administrator (Lisa Cuddy from House is the prime example) constantly reminds patients and doctors about the cost of their decisions, such a figure is simply absent from Kutsenko’s Doctor. While Iurii mentions that he needs to deal with financial issues , neither patients nor doctors experience any shortages of supplies, funds or equipment. The only financial issue mentioned are doctors’ low salaries, which are compensated by patients’ envelopes brought to the doctors’ offices. The filmmaker depicts these handouts paid by patients to the doctors as something natural and self-evident, like Russia’s cold climate. Bribes are normalized, become part of the idyllic symbiotic relationship between the doctor and the patient. After all, as the film shows the viewers, patients’ payments go either back into the budget of the hospital to buy medical supplies for the same patients or supplement the salaries of Iurii’s hardworking colleagues.

vrachThe supporting cast melodramatizes the plot and reinforces traditional gender hierarchies. When the protagonist is not rescuing his patients, he flirts with every female employee in the hospital. These potential romances face either typical melodramatic obstacles of mistiming or spatial separation. Five days of the film’s diegesis reveal five female characters with whom Iurii is or has been romantically involved. At the film’s beginning, his former first love and her current husband seek Iurii’s help to save her. Unfortunately, the doctor realizes that he might not be able to. Parallel to this plotline Iurii initiates a relationship with the new doctor—an affair, which the melodramatic logic of “too late” will leave without resolution because Iurii becomes a tetraplegic patient himself. If in the case of his first love and the new doctor nothing can be done because Iurii or another character simply run out of time, in the case of his wife Galina and his mistress spatial separation prevents the characters from keeping their relationship going. Iurii constantly fails in his plans to break through and reach  them because hospital business permanently delays his departure from work. Finally, next to Iurii works his female colleague from the intensive care unit who silently loves her senior colleague. To blur the line between fiction and reality, the director even cast  his former (Mariia Poroshina) and current wife (Irina Skrinichenko)  in his medical melodrama. At the film’s end all the women gather to lament the patriarch’s inevitable departure. Kutsenko’s film might reflect the gender politics of Russian hospital life truthfully but such a celebration of male privilege looks somewhat archaic in the age when Meredith Grey and Lisa Cuddy level traditional hierarchies, at least in virtual reality.

Consciously or unconsciously, Kutsenko creates a film with a symptomatic chronotope: a stagnant idyll of a hospital for terminally ill patients. Kutsenko depicts this Russian hospital as a community of professionals whose expertise and ethical integrity help patients regain hope even in the face of the most severe diagnoses. Such a portrayal of the professional community as an alternative to the moral decline of the society at large takes the viewer back to the aesthetics of late socialist era. The fictional professional communities of the 1970s provided characters with a sense of purpose and integrity, which disappeared in the world outside these closed groups. Such professional communities of integrity included cinematic doctors, teachers, and military and police officers who fulfilled their professional duties amidst general apathy and depression. In such Brezhnev-era films about doctors as Alla Manasarova’s Morning Round (Utrennii obkhod 1974) or Vladimir Fetin’s Open Book (1973), hard work and professionalism served as  antidotes to hypocrisy and corruption of late Soviet years. 

vrachKutsenko’s protagonist creates a similar oasis of professional integrity and ethical behavior in a  world, which constantly threatens the existence of this island of human decency. Once the protagonist is outside the hospital, the forces beyond his control threaten his very existence. The film’s main story is bookended by two car accidents. The film opens with an accident when an expensive SUV hits Iurii’s modest car. Even though the SUV driver is at fault, Iurii has no time to prove his innocence and chooses to rush to the hospital to save his patient’s life rather than saving his reputation as a driver. At the film’s end Iurii steps outside the hospital only to fall victim of another car accident that turns the protagonist into a tetraplegic patient. By bitter irony he ends up in a coma back in the neurosurgery department, which he used to head several hours ago. The dark denouement leaves little doubt about the future of such an idyllic community of heroic professionals.

Kutsenko’s film touches on a theme rarely discussed in Russian cinema, that of euthanasia. The accident leaves Iurii paralyzed, and right before the film ends, the filmmaker takes the viewers back to a recording from Iurii’s phone made four days earlier, in which he tells his friends to take him off life support if he becomes terminally ill. The viewers never learn what happens to the protagonist and what decision his doctors will make. In his press conference at Kinotavr, the filmmaker denied that he had “any conscious position regarding euthanasia” (Ezerova 2016). But in their questions at the meetings and interviews with the director, journalists and viewers again and again return to the film’s ending (Soboleva 2016; Anon. 2016). The filmmaker obviously touched on an issue that cries out for discussion. At least one reviewer notes: “Perhaps, contrary to the montage logic of the film’s finale, the intended message is the opposite of that suggested by the video recorded by Kutsenko’s protagonist” (Ezerova 2016). Euthanasia might not be the only way out. 

Alexander Prokhorov
College of William and Mary

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Works Cited

Anon. 2016. “Gosha Kutsenko Becomes an Inveterate Drunkard Without a Job.” December 1. 

Ezerova, Daria. 2016. “The Cinematic Discomfort of Kinotavr 2016.” KinoKultura 53  

Prishchepova, Anna. 2016. “Gosha Kutsenko debiutiroval na Kinotavre 2016 v kachestve rezhissera.”  Vokrug TV 9 June.

Soboleva, Nina. 2016. “Tvorcheskaia vstrecha s Goshei Kutsenko.” (Interview). Okolo. Art Zhurnal, November 3.

Doctor, Russia, 2016
Color, 104 minutes
Director: Iurii Kutsenko
Script: Iurii Kutsenko
Cinematographer: Evgeniia Opel’iants
Music: Ruslan Luk’ianov
Producer: Andrei Novikov, Irina Soina
Cast: Aleksandr Iatsko, Viktoriia Korliakova, Alena Khmelnitskaia, Gosha Kutsenko, Anna Mikhalkova, Mariia Poroshina, Irina Srinichenko, Olesia Zhelezniak,
Production: Artlight

Iurii (Gosha) Kutsenko: Doctor (Vrach, 2016)

reviewed by Aleksandr Prokhorov© 2017

Updated: 2017