Breaking all the usual rules of storytelling, The Asthenic Syndrome identifies two debilitating forms of behavior in the world today–extreme aggressiveness and extreme passivity. Written and directed by the most celebrated living Russian woman filmmaker, it was the only Russian film to have been banned by the Soviet government during Perestroika.
With a comic vigor that gets impetus from sadness and rage, Muratova depicts urban life under glasnost as a succession of crises, jolts, and disruptions. The official ideology that was supposed to organize all this has been abandoned to parody, and the only options left to the individual, other than brutality, are escalated aggressiveness or withdrawal. The greatness of the film lies in Muratova’s determined embrace of the fragmentary. The Asthenic Syndrome is a universe of compact microcosms that ignore one another: the school storage room, filled with busts of Lenin, where Nikolai goes to commune with his muse; an apartment where a man tends caged birds while his daughter dances alone to a David Byrne record; a fish seller’s stand besieged by a clamoring, pushing crowd.
From Chris Fujiwara’s review
The film abounds in playful confusions. Nikolai, who teaches English, has two devoted students who sit together in class and are both named Masha (Natalya Busko and Galina Sachurdaewa); both come to visit him when he winds up in a madhouse. Doubtless there are other details referring specifically to aspects of everyday postcommunist Russian life that are too local to register with much clarity to outsiders like me. Truthfully, I found the movie a lot easier to follow when I saw it a second time and knew not to look for too much plot continuity, though I can’t claim there weren’t parts that still baffled me. The movie’s a treasure chest, and if we get to see it more, more will surely become clear.
Nevertheless, the fundamental aspects of the asthenic syndrome come across loud and clear–and you certainly don’t have to be Russian or postcommunist to recognize them as central philosophical as well as behavioral strains in our public life.
From the excellent review by Jonathan Rosenbaum for Chicago Reader