Starring Aleksandr Yatsenko. In Russian, with English subtitles. Rated 14A
With its focus on medical crises and young doctors in love, Arrhythmia at first feels like a Russian Scrubs or ER—admittedly with a lot more vodka-fuelled benders.
But then, about halfway through this Russian slice of life, something starts to happen; the mood shifts into a more intense gear. Thanks to the emotionally naked acting of its central couple, paired with director Boris Khlebnikov’s intimate lensing, you find yourself hopelessly tied up in whether their marriage is going to succeed. You’ll be especially invested if you’ve ever weathered a long-term relationship, squeezed by the day-to-day stresses of just making a living.
By day, and by night shift, Katya (Irina Gorbacheva) and Oleg (Aleksandr Yatsenko) deal with emergency patients—she as a doctor in a hospital, he out in the higher-stakes world of paramedic work. They come home to a tiny apartment in an unnamed Russian city. It’s just a cramped bedroom and a kitchen, the latter the only place where Oleg can be booted to—with an air mattress, by the fridge—when their relationship hits the rocks. The main problem is that Oleg drinks to deal with the pressures of his job—especially with a new efficiency manager cracking down—by losing himself in the bottle with his rowdy colleagues.
Yatsenko is beautifully developed here—a kind of curly-haired, hangdog-expression-wearing Sean Penn—and yet he’s a man of few words. His Oleg is as flawed as they come—self-destructive, petulant, and often detached. But he’s a devoted medic, and at moments you can see real pain and passion in his eyes. In one viscerally affecting scene, an exhausted Katya finally agrees to drink with Oleg and his buddies, and when she lets loose and starts lip-synching a rock song from her teens, you feel him realizing, from across the tiny room, how much he needs her. Gorbacheva gives Katya a vivid inner strength too, refusing to nag or get angry even as she realizes she’s losing her husband.
Aside from that compelling relationship, one of the best things that Arrhythmia does is immerse us in the couple’s world. You enter the wall-rug-laden communal apartments of Oleg’s older patients; the birch-tree-enclosed country house where the couple feasts outdoors with Katya’s parents; the slushy, clogged streets where it’s almost impossible to get an ambulance through.
On the face of it, there’s nothing political about Khlebnikov’s film—and yet look hard, and you’ll see it: the exhaustion with bureaucracy, the dangers posed by a broken system to old folks and children, and the hardship it takes just to get by—even when you’re med-school grads.
Arrhythmia feels authentically Russian, but it works because its characters and their struggles feel so relatable and universal. And given what’s happening in the world right now, that’s a bit of a political act, too.