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Creepy allegory of Soviet authoritarianism and political delusion is aesthetically and narratively compelling - live from the Official Selection of the 27th Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival


Rezo Gigineishvili’s Patient#1 feels like a much-welcomed return of Russian cinema to the international film festival circuit. Since the invasion of Ukraine, most a-list festivals around the world have refused to showcase Russian films. The International Federation of Film Producers Associations (Fiapf) even suspended the accreditation of the Moscow Film Festival. This happened after the Director of the Hermitage Mikhail Piotrovsky stated that Russian culture was part of their “arsenal” (the choice of the military term was no coincidence, but a rather unambiguous reference to the Russo-Ukrainian War). Russian films that used to reach festivals around the world tended to be audacious, bleak and profoundly subversive. I don’t remember ever seeing anything vaguely pro-Putin and propagandistic. I miss the works of Andrey Zvyagintsev, Alexander Sokurov, Ilya Khrzhanovskiy, and so many others. I find it regrettable that Russian filmmakers fell prey to the delusions of the narcissist running the largest country on Earth, and to the sharp tongue of an insolent museum director. I believe that filmmakers working in oppressive and military belligerent regimes such as Russia and Israel should still be given a platform. Their voices are mostly anti-establishment, even if sometimes they have to pay lip service to their despots (bearing in mind that many artists have been forced to take sides, against their will). They are the people who have the power to subvert the system from within. They can open hearts and minds. They can break paradigms. One crack at a time, until the facade collapses.

Patient#1 feels extremely Russian: language, location, tone, topic and cinematography. I could almost see the somber and claustrophobics settings and the contemptuous women of Khrzhanovskiy’s DAU. Natacha (2020), the activism of Konchalovsky’s Dear Comrades! (2020), or the ailing puppet leader of Sokurov’s Taurus (2001). Yet Patient#1 isn’t a Russian film. It was directed by Georgian filmmaker Rezo Gigineishvili, and produced in Georgia. Rezo Gigineishvili grew up and attended film school in Moscow, which might explain the origins of his artistic streak. Patient#1 is a mockery of the short-sighted authoritarianism in the Soviet Union where the 41-year-old director spent is childhood.

The story surrounds a fictitious Secretary General of the Soviet Union known only by his initials KU, and skilfully played by 79-year-old Russian actor Aleksandr Filippenko. He is profoundly sick, haggard like a corpse. A number of respiratory problems prevent enough oxygen from reaching his brain, leaving the old man entirely delusional. Those around him wish to keep him alive at all costs, while keeping him under the illusion that he still controls the Union. A situation familiar to Russians: Lenin lived the final years of his life in a very similar condition. Patient#1 however takes place at a much later time, when most people owned colour televisions and the Afghan-Soviet War was at full speed.

A stunningly beautiful nurse called Alexandra (played by Ukrainian actress Olga Makeeva) is in charge of KU. Her looks presumably played a role in her selection for the job. She provides him with company, helps the agonising man to urinate, and resuscitates him more times than one. KU insists that Sasha (the Russian nickname for Alexandra) is his spouse, rejecting his despondent wife of many decades, in what’s perhaps the movie’s most heartbreaking scene. Alexandra’s life is stable however far from rosy: she gets involved in a scuffle at work and with a group of French tourists on the street, she poisons herself with alcohol and almost collapses to her death after climbing a piece of decoration inside a night club. She has a beautiful lover of around her age, however their relationship seems to lack a certain je-ne-sais-quoi. In a way, her existence is just as sad and pointless as KU’s.

KU’s comrades have a mission: they need to keep KU alive for the upcoming elections at all costs. He should be able to walk to the ballot box unaided, deposit his vote, and deliver a speech about the marvels of Communism. His doctors insist that that’s impossible. But as you might remember from The Death of Stalin (Armando Iannucci, 2017), Communist officers are never too keen on receiving orders from people wearing a white coat. They prefer to die in a pool of urine. The situation is ridiculously tragic and palpably absurd. Will KU face a death similar to the most murderous leader of the Soviet Union? His associates don’t seem to care, as long as death happens after the elections.

Cinematographically haunting, Patient#1 takes place in winter, when the Russian capital is covered by a thick layer of snow. The imagery is dark and misty, the atmosphere is heavy and sullen, much like the characters in the film. This is a world of nightmares to which nobody wishes to return. This is a serious political drama revealing the absurdity of power intoxication. The desire to stay in office is stronger than the desire to live. Despots and mummies have a lot more in common than they like to think.

Patient#1 just premiered in the Official Selection of the 27th Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival. Not to be missed!

By Victor Fraga - 09-11-2023

Victor Fraga is a Brazilian born and London-based journalist and filmmaker with more than 20 years of involvement in the cinema industry and beyond. He is an LGBT writer, and describes himself as a di...

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