Ward No. 6: Reality blurred

The problem with the insane is that they do not have a clear concept of reality.  Director Karen Shakhnazarov with Alexander Borodyansky has written a screenplay based on Anton Chekov’s short story that mixes the real patients of mental hospital with actors. Shakhnazarov shot this film in documentary style. In the movie, “Ward No. 6,” the main action is mixed with interviews of the real patients of Mental Health Nursing Home No. 3 in the Dmitrov District of Moscow.

The actual site had originally been a monastery then and tuberculosis patient center, and the film tells some of this history before introducing the chief doctor, Hobotov (Evgeny Stychkin), and the sad-eyed mute new paitent who we learn was formerly the chief of staff, Dr. Andrey Ragin (Vladimir Ilyin). Ragin is a balding, middle-aged man who slouches alone making eye-contact with no one.

Ragin’s fall wasn’t far. He was an alcoholic man with great disdain for all the people in this provincial town. His only friend is the postal carrier, Mikhail (Alexander Pankratov-Chyorny) who is also interviewed and shows his home videos of Ragin during their time together and even describes a trip to Moscow to see half-naked dancing girls, a guys weekend respite. Yet even then, Ragin shut himself off, staying in the hotel, hiding from modern life. This intellectual snob has shut himself away from the country bumpkins of his town, but finds life in the big city too hard to handle.

This isn’t the key event in Ragin’s mental breakdown. Rather, Ragin’s debates with a patient, Gromov (Alexey Vertkov) challenge his belief in himself and the meaning of life.  “You don’t have to do anything and you think yourself a sage,” Gromov tells him.

You might have problems reading the subtitles because of the light color used for the lettering. No matter. This adds to the disorientation that film presents where we don’t know what is real, what is fake, what is current and what is the past.

Anton Chekov (29 January 1860 – 15 July 1904) was a doctor who donated his services to peasants but preferred casual liaisons with women. When he finally married in 1901, he mostly lived apart from his wife (he in Yalta, she in Moscow). She, actress Olga Knipper, would be with him when he died of tuberculosis in the German spa city of Badenweiler.

In Chekov’s short story, the doctor-become-patient dies, unwilling to speak after suffering an apoplectic stroke. In the movie, Ragin’s fate is less clear. Is he imprisoned by his mental breakdown or is he happier having lost his snobbery?

This movie is Russia’s official submission for the foreign language Academy Award.  Shakhnazarov with Borodyansky blur reality and time in a manner that forces us to confront a hazy reality that approximates how some people seem to perceive the world. Yet, their script has a happier ending. When a fat balding man ends up dancing with the most attractive girl at the holiday party, is that really a tragedy? And when two young girls recall Ragin with smiles, as a hero of sorts, was Ragin’s life really a total failure?

This movie is no longer playing in Pasadena.

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