The English surgeon is Henry Marsh, a British neuroscientist who has been traveling to Ukraine since 1992 to tutor, diagnose, and perform operations that the post-Soviet medical infrastructure is incapable of handling. Geoffrey Smith’s well-meaning documentary takes risks: Contextual setup aside, the film’s footage comes from a mere two weeks of shooting Marsh’s umpteenth visit to remove an especially risky tumor. Smith has the guts to shoot/show graphic brain surgery and the sense to avoid maudlin testimonies from friends and family, knowing that no adoring relative could explain why a world-acclaimed scientist would sacrifice his time and mental health to repeatedly do the right thing for no reward. But I wish more attention had been focused on Marsh’s Ukrainian friend Igor Kurilets’s struggles with the country’s proudly anachronistic medical establishment—The Death Of Mr. Lazarescu this ain’t. By focusing on Marsh without any real personal or structural insight, the effect is to prioritize the humanitarian over the far more interesting problem: the system. And the end—a tear-soaked, predictably bathetic visit to the family of a girl who died when Marsh made the wrong call on the operating table—succumbs to the easy sentimentality the film has shirked till then. That a young girl’s death is lastingly sad is the smallest revelation of all.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 22, 2009