Left: Andrei Konchalovsky, Uncle Vanya, 1970, still from a color film in 35 mm, 104 minutes. Right: Yuli Karasik, The Seagull, 1970, still from a color film in 35 mm, 100 minutes.

“CELEBRATING CHEKHOV,” a miniseries of adaptations of the Russian author’s work, is currently being presented at the Walter Reade Theater by the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Confined to works by Soviet and Russian filmmakers, the series includes both familiar titles—Andrei Konchalovsky’s Uncle Vanya (1970) and Yuli Karasik’s The Seagull (1970)—and lesser-known ones: Chekhov’s Motives (2002), directed by Kira Muratova, and Ward No. 6 (2009), directed by Karen Shakhnazarov and Aleksandr Gornovsky, the Russian submission to the 2009 Oscar race, which is having its American premiere in the series.

Though all are worth seeing, I have always felt that Chekhov’s major plays do not translate easily to the screen. Their long silences, indicated by stage directions, in which action is suspended, in which nothing—and everything—happens, and during which the slightest gesture conveys the subtlest shifts of emotion, are either collapsed or entirely ignored on film in favor of a more fluid sense of narrative and dramatic continuity. Nikita Mikhalkov’s An Unfinished Piece for the Player Piano (1977), based on Chekhov’s first play, Platonov, may be an exception. While film versions of Chekhov’s fiction, both short (The Lady with the Dog [Iosif Kheifits, 1960]) and long (The Shooting Party [Emil Loteanu, 1978]), are more successful, no film I can think of has adequately captured what Tolstoy called Chekhov’s “impressionistic” style or has adhered to Chekhov’s declared aims to achieve the most objective observations of life free of preconceived political, social, and economic ideologies.

The new film, Ward No. 6, is a case in point. On the one hand, it is faithful to the essence of the curious story of a doctor in a lunatic asylum who becomes so attached to a patient with a persecution complex—the first man with whom he can have an intelligent conversation—that he is eventually committed to the same asylum. These two characters, beautifully enacted by Vladimir Ilyin and Alexey Vertkov, respectfully, are brought convincingly and affectingly to life, their conversations retaining whole chunks of Chekhov’s dialogue. On the other hand, in updating the story to present day, the film seems bent on turning what literary critic Lev Shestov called Chekhov’s “positivist materialism[, in which] man, brought face to face with the laws of nature, must always adapt himself and give way, give way, give way,” into a metaphor for despair over conditions in contemporary Russia. Indeed, it’s hard to escape the generic tendency throughout film history—from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) to One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)—wherein mental institutions become instant metaphors for social and political oppression.

Aleksandr Gornovsky and Karen Shakhnazarov, Ward No. 6, 2009, still from a color film, 83 minutes.

This film might be said to suffer from the same schizophrenia described by the character of Dr. Khobotov (Evgeny Stychkin) on camera to an off-screen interviewer for what appears to be an investigative documentary on conditions in the asylum. In juxtaposing Chekhov’s story with this seemingly detached, modern point of view, his protagonist, Dr. Andrei Yefimych Ragin, whose verbal eloquence does not preclude affinities with Melville’s Bartleby and Kafka’s Josef K. and might even be said to prefigure Beckett’s narrators in Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable, is here made a victim of the state and antiquated treatments of mental illness. While this does not contradict Chekhov’s observations as one trained in medicine, it tends to stress sociopolitical conditions over his far more comprehensive despair about the nature of existence itself as a dismal, unavoidable “trap,” which man tries to deny through any number of illusions, including the belief in the immortality of the soul.

Still, in addition to an appropriately dreary atmosphere and superior acting, the film has moments of unexpected poetry, even if they do not derive from Chekhov’s vision. It begins with a telescopic history of the building that eventually became the asylum, noting its use as a monastery centuries earlier. In an early scene with no discernible link to what follows, we see a seventeenth-century hooded monk and an angelic nun walking through the woods. While I cannot verify it, the actress who plays this nun reappears at the end as a female patient brought into Ward 6 with fellow inmates to celebrate the New Year with the male patients. A luminous close-up precedes her walk across the room, where she rouses fellow patient Dr. Ragin from his torpor and leads him to the dance floor. As she smiles enigmatically over his shoulder, she could well be an incarnation of the eternal female, hinting at the perennial cycle of life as both unavoidable trap and irresistible hope.

Tony Pipolo

“Celebrating Chekhov” runs at the Walter Reade Theater in New York November 27–December 3. For more details, click here.