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BLACK NIGHTS 2023 Competition

Review: Patient #1


- With his latest feature, Rezo Giginieshvili has something to say about the past, the present and the never-changing nature of power that cannot be given away

Review: Patient #1

The early-to-mid 80s in the former Soviet Union were known as “the time of state funerals,” given that party leaders and heads of state were dying in quick succession one after another. They were old when they “inherited” power and were basically the tools of a system that was running on fumes and powered by inertia. Georgian filmmaker Rezo Gigineishvili takes us back to that period of time with his newest feature Patient #1, which has just opened the official competition of this year’s Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival.

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When we meet our protagonist, a nurse named Sasha (Olga Makeeva), her primary concern is to prepare her singing act for the nurses’ ball that is about to take place in the hospital. Out of the blue, she is selected, interviewed by a high-ranking party member (Igor Chernevich) and approved to become the primary nurse who discreetly takes care of a very special patient. That patient is none other than the Secretary General (Aleksandr Filipenko), a man in such ill health that he can barely support his vital functions, but one who still believes that he has real power.

At first, it seems like a job like any other, for which Sasha’s special skills of being discreet, polite and unobtrusive come in handy. But the situation is way more complex for her, for the hospital, for the Party and for the whole state. Simply put, different players have different requests, political and personal, for the Secretary General whose mind is not quite sound, and most of them see Sasha as the designated channel of communication. She has no other option than to try to balance different powers greater than herself, and she cannot take any rest. The questions are “why?” and “for how long?”, and the answer may lie in the motto that power is never to be given, but always to be taken.

Rezo Gigineishvili has made a career directing commercials, music videos and Russian-language repertoire romantic comedies before achieving notoriety on the film festival circuit with the based-on-true-events Georgian-language film Hostages [+see also:
film review
interview: Irakli Kvirikadze
interview: Rezo Gigineishvili
film profile
in 2017. That film was similarly set in the 1980s and likewise dealt with a system running on its own inertia, through the story of a futile attempt by a group of young, West-leaning intellectuals to escape by hatching a plan to hijack a plane. With Patient #1, the period is the same, but the mood is even gloomier. There is no youthful enthusiasm or dreams of escape, and even when Sasha manages to sneak away for the night to blow off some steam at a dance party, the Party has no trouble finding her.

Gigineishvili masterfully commands the sombre mood. The narrow aspect ratio, the desaturated colours of the interiors and the brutalist angular buildings in the rare exterior shots make the point on their own, as do the contrasts between the usually static shots that depict the reality and the hand-held ones that show the darkly dreamy, almost nightmarish insights into the mind of a person who thinks that he still has power. The mood is further coloured by Giya Kancheli’s score which moves from a minimalist, almost atonal palette at the beginning, towards the neoclassical, before finally ending in the rock realm.

The performances are also inspired throughout. There is more than a drop of Jessica Chastain in Olga Makeeva’s interpretation of Sasha, which comes handy for the interplay with the rest of the ensemble. Veteran actor Aleksandr Filipenko proves to be a perfect choice to portray both the fragility and the conviction of a dying party leader, while one scene is enough for Inna Churikova, playing his wife, to deliver an acting masterclass in her final big screen role.

Deliberately slow-paced to communicate a sense of gravity, Patient #1 serves as an evocative reminder of bygone times. As such, it is also a potent comment of our current times which also run on fumes and inertia.

Patient #1 is a Russian-language Georgian production by Georgia’s Independent Film Project.

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