With “Celebrating Chekhov,” Lincoln Center compiles seven screen adaptations from the good doctor. Of the five Soviet-era productions, 1970’s Uncle Vanya is apparently the most renowned. Andrei Konchalovsky—later émigré and co-director of Tango & Cash—directs in tony, stultifyingly loyal tradition, revisiting your great-grandfather’s favorite bits of symbolic staging: Running-down clocks signify decline; birdcages and banisters, imprisonment; long views down enfilades, alienation. This horribly subtitled print may represent the finest filmed Vanya—but the really reimagined film here is Ward No. 6.
Based on Chekhov’s 1892 story of a provincial doctor who winds up in his own asylum, scourged out of his professional complacency by dialogues with a philosophical inmate, Aleksander Gornovsky and Karen Shakhnazarov’s film, having its American premiere, begins on a dust-blowing conceit, interviewing actual wards of state in a contemporary Russian institution. Konchalovsky’s Vanya assured its Soviet audience that they were looking back on prehistory from the better world that Vanya and Dr. Astrov wish they’d been born to. In Ward No. 6, Aleksei Vertkov’s prophet-madman is still awaiting “the beautiful life there will be on earth in time,” here, today, on the far side of Russian Utopianism.
Investigating the breakdown of Vladmir Ilyin’s Dr. Ragin, Ward No. 6 divides Chekhov’s dialogue between mock-documentary inquest, home video, and straight psychodrama. Like the best adaptations, even its inventions are good: a vision of the 17th-century foundation of the monastery-turned-hospital, which draws the sense of the story’s continuity into the past, and the inmate who believes Yuri Andropov commanded him to kill John Lennon.