Review 1. Diagnosis: Dissent

In his psychological drama, Denys Tarasov proves there is nothing more important than individual freedom.

Serhiy Zhadan, a prominent Ukrainian novelist, wrote that “your entire life is an endless fight with the system”. Diagnosis: Dissent (Diagnoza: Dysydent), directed by debutant Denys Tarasov, conscientiously echoes his words.

It tells the fictitious story of Andriy Dovzhenko (Kostyantyn Temlyak), a radio host and a constant troublemaker living in the 1970s USSR’s Ukraine. When he’s fired for the latter, frustrated Andriy decides to play his favourite rock song (at that time completely forbidden) during one of the broadcasts. Unfortunately, the repercussions are unforgiving and Andriy has two choices: either go to prison or admit he’s mentally ill. Having his family in mind, Andriy chooses the psychiatric hospital. However, the institution isn’t the place it appears to be; seemingly, it’s an entrapment far worse than prison.

Diagnosis proposes relatively non-memorable storytelling; still, its most horrendous motive is to picture the consequences of Andriy’s actions. Such an innocuous deed, like playing a song on public radio, shouldn’t have been treated as a crime against the country… Until it was. But don’t be misled by its Ken Kesey-like premise from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: it’s less than that. While a few sequences show the system’s ruthlessness, they quickly become repetitive. Diagnosis should have been slightly shortened when it comes to the scenes depicting the patients’ torture and suffering. Other imperfections, like a few awkwardly written dialogues, make us feel like we’re watching some cheap, dramatic ersatz. The pathos of the over-the-top exchanges does not correspond with the expressive and nuanced performance delivered by the actors. Nonetheless, under a veil of a few stylistic drawbacks, the story is compelling if you give it a chance.

The absence of women is conspicuous, although there is a focus on a few of them, including Oksana (Nataliya Babenko), Andriy’s wife – and there is something romantic in this subtle portrayal. It’s true that she vaguely appears only in a few scenes but her impact is undeniable and it’s apparent that she has always been a driving force for men. There is even a moment when Andriy’s and Oksana’s father, Valentin (Sergey Kalantay), mostly biased against each other, start finding their common voice. It undoubtedly becomes the most poignant theme because of their mutual feelings towards Oksana.

It seems that Ukrainian cinema is currently experiencing a tiny, yet somewhat seminal film renaissance. Last year’s Pamfir, a sudden revelation from Cannes, directed by Dmytro Sukholytkyy-Sobchuck, only confirmed the young director’s versatility. Tarasov follows the path of Sobchuck’s solid craft in his eclectic drama.

By referring to a forgotten chapter from Ukrainian history, Diagnosis dissects the Orwellian reality of the Soviet system. It might not redefine a psychological cinema, but it does its job. That is, involve the viewer, entertain and educate simultaneously.

Jan Tracz