Fear not the subtitles, fellow Anglophones; Thomas Lilti’s Hippocrates: Diary of a French Doctor (2014) is worth the effort, and it will appeal especially to those who, like Lilti himself, are enthusiasts of American medical dramas House M.D. and E.R. Think Grey’s Anatomy, but with Benjamin Barois (Vincent Lacoste) as a fresh-faced medical intern whose nascent career is subjected to the scrutiny of his father, esteemed physician Professor Barois (Jacques Gamblin).
The film opens with an extended tracking shot that follows Benjamin through the labyrinthine hallways of the Paris hospital to which he’s been assigned, while intermittent close-ups of his face reveal a man-child who is smug but lost, unprepared for the ten rooms and eighteen patients now under his care. Assumed to be the best new intern, Benjamin struggles in his first week on the job until he grudgingly begins to accept a colleague’s assistance. Reda Kateb, winner of a prestigious César Award for this performance, is brilliant as Abdel Rezzak, Benjamin’s rival-turned-mentor whose professionalism and studiousness bear little resemblance to the raucous behavior of the younger interns. Despite Abdel’s impressive bedside manner and years of experience in his native Algeria, his immigration status and position as a foreign intern are precarious, and the uncertainty of Abdel’s future as a physician contrasts sharply with the privileges and protection that Benjamin enjoys thanks to his father’s position at the hospital.
Tragedy strikes during Benjamin’s first night on call when a homeless patient nicknamed Tsunami (Thierry Levaret) passes away, due in part to the intern’s negligence. Benjamin’s father as well as his supervising physician Dr. Denormandy (Marianne Denicourt) come to the rescue and cover for his mistakes. The film’s realistic elements—documentary-style camerawork, on-location shootings at hospitals in and around Paris, the director’s own experience as an overwhelmed 23-year-old intern—enhance the effectiveness of this story that chronicles not only Benjamin’s professional mishaps but also his estranged relationship with his father and his tutelage under Abdel.
For this viewer, the most poignant scenes of the film center on the treatment of elderly cancer patient Mrs. Richard (Jeanne Cellard). Since there is no room for her in the palliative care ward, Abdel, the embodiment of the Hippocratic Oath, scrounges a morphine pump in an attempt to alleviate her pain. From there he makes a series of decisions—without the approval of his supervisors—to provide compassionate care and to respect the wishes of the patient and her family. The extreme close-up of Mrs. Richard’s flailing hand as she cries silently is a harrowing depiction of the consequences of insisting that frail patients be rehabilitated at all costs, and the repercussions of Abdel’s ethical treatment of Mrs. Richard are likely to enrage even the most indifferent moviegoers.
Benjamin and his colleagues face a host of challenges, from long hours to dismal living quarters to low wages, not to mention a director who is seemingly oblivious to his institution’s utter lack of resources and insufficient staffing. The film’s dark humor simultaneously offsets and underscores the gravity of the hospital’s dire state of affairs. One intern jokes that Benjamin doesn’t need malpractice insurance because, as the son of a senior physician, he is allowed five deaths a year; another confesses that they always resuscitate patients, regardless of advance directives, because they don’t have time to read the paperwork; Abdel argues that being a physician isn’t a job, it’s a curse; etc. Miraculously, Hippocrates manages to avoid wallowing in either self-righteousness or self-defeatism (or worse, sentimentality), and its final burst of optimism is sure to please American audiences.