Tuesday, 5 April 2011
Alexei Popogrebsky: Simple Things - Простые вещи (2007)
Stars:Sergei Puskepalis, Leonid Bronevoy, Svetlana Kamynina
Awards: ‘Best Film' 18th Sochi Film Festival ‘Kinotavr'
‘Best Director' 18th Sochi Film Festival ‘Kinotavr'
‘Best Actor' 18th Sochi Film Festival ‘Kinotavr'
‘Best Supporting Actor' 18th Sochi Film Festival ‘Kinotavr'
A special prize of Russian Guild of Film Scholars and Critics 2007
‘Best Actor' Crystal Globe award at Karlovy Vary IFF 2007
‘Best Supporting Actor' at Karlovy Vary IFF 2007
FIPRESCI prize at Karlovy Vary IFF 2007
A special prize of ecumenical Jury at Karlovy Vary IFF 2007
‘Best Newcomer', Sergei Puskepalis, NIKA 2007
At the core of Aleksei Popogrebskii's superb new film Simple Things are the rueful smile and the extraordinary charisma of Sergei Puskepalis. Originally an actor, Puskepalis re-trained as a theater director under Petr Fomenko, and is now the main director at the Pushkin Drama Theater in Magnitogorsk. He met Popogrebskii when visiting his son, Gleb Puskepalis, on the set of Koktebel, the film Popogrebskii directed with Boris Khlebnikov in 2003. Popogrebskii says that he wrote the screenplay of Simple Things with Puskepalis in mind and never considered anyone else for the leading role. Though it is the actor's first major role in a film and he is required to be in every scene, Popogrebskii's confidence has been triumphantly rewarded by one of the most riveting performances in recent Russian cinema. 
The character whom Puskepalis inhabits is his namesake, Sergei Maslov, an anesthetist at the “Fourth City Hospital” in St. Petersburg. Maslov's life is beset by troubles. His job at the hospital is poorly paid and he takes petty bribes to get by (though he turns down the bigger bribes that he is offered). He and his wife live in a cramped flat in a kommunalka, which one of his neighbors, a bent old woman, almost blows up by switching on the gas and dropping the matches while Sergei is smoking in the kitchen. His non-descript, right-wheel drive car is left standing at traffic lights by classier models, and then, when he goes drinking after work in a bar, he loses his license. An attempt to retrieve it by using blat with a Major who is his former patient is rebuffed and he is reduced to traveling on overcrowded public transport. His attempts to organize an assignation with Ksiusha, a receptionist at the hospital, are thwarted by her parents' decision not to go to their dacha. His daughter Lena has left home to live with a boyfriend whom he and his wife Katia don't know. To cap it all, Katia announces that she is pregnant. Appalled at the idea of having another child in their tiny flat, he says he'll speak to a fellow doctor about arranging an abortion, only to find that Katia is determined to have the baby. In such circumstances anyone would be forgiven for having a minor mid-life crisis. Maslov is frequently seen (in his flat, at the hospital, at a party at a Chinese restaurant) cast into thought while others are having fun. A fellow doctor even warns him that “thinking is no good for you.” But Maslov is assailed by a sense of failure—asked by his wise and tactful wife what is making him dissatisfied, he answers, with a flash of anger: “Myself. I'm dissatisfied with myself” (“Soboi. Ia soboi nedovolen”).
In early Soviet films, doctors, like teachers, were dedicated and self-sacrificing, motivated by their belief in the new order. Dr Birman, in Oleg Frelikh's Prostitute (Prostitutka, 1926), dispenses jobs in a sewing workshop and lectures on avoiding venereal disease. The eponymous young hero of Erast Garin and Khesia Lokshina's Doctor Kaliuzhnyi (1939) returns to his native town after graduating. He sorts out the chaos in the local hospital, and operates on his former schoolteacher and on his girlfriend's sister, in both cases managing to restore their sight. In Aleksandr Zarkhi and Iosif Kheifits's In the Name of Life (Vo imia zhizni, 1946) a young surgeon solves the problem of cell regeneration, while Kazakova, the heroine of Sergei Gerasimov's The Village Doctor (Sel'skii vrach, 1951) goes to work in a village hospital and wins the respect of the old doctor who runs it.
Doctors remained favorite heroes in the films of the Thaw and beyond. In Fridrikh Ermler's An Unfinished Story (Neokonchennaia povest', 1955), Elizaveta Maksimovna, a model of hard work, good sense, and kindness, nurses the shipbuilder Ershov back to his feet after a serious accident, falling in love with him along the way. The belated finding of his true love is also part of the story of Vladimir Ustimenko, the doctor hero of Iosif Kheifits's 1958 film My Dear Person (Dorogoi moi chelovek), which begins in the 1930s, when he is a student, takes him through service in the Great Patriotic War, and ends with his leaving to work in the virgin lands. And though the trio of doctors in Aleksei Sakharov's Colleagues (Kollegi, 1962), taken from Vasilii Aksenov's novel, are of a younger generation, graduating from the Leningrad Medical Institute in 1956, they are still driven by lofty aspiration, in particular the central figure, Sasha Zelenin, whose appointment as a village doctor places him in a tradition that goes back, via Gerasimov's Kazakova and Garin's Kaliuzhnyi to the doctors of Chekhov, a patrimony he acknowledges by placing a portrait of the writer on the wall of his village flat. It is Zelenin's commitment to his profession that helps him to overcome the many challenges that his work brings him, and that same commitment can be seen in two of the doctor protagonists in films of the Brezhnev years. Sedov, the surgeon hero of Il'ia Averbakh's A Degree of Risk (Stepen' riska, 1968) is plunged into self-doubt when a five year old girl dies after he has operated on her, but eventually agrees to try to save the life of a talented mathematician, while in Pavel Chukhrai's Remember Sometimes! (Ty inogda vspominai!, 1977 ) a military surgeon, who has retired to a little town near the border after the death of his son, realizes that he can still be useful and begins to practice again. ...
Reviewed by Julian Graffy © 2008 in KinoKultura