RIORI Vol 3, Installment 31: Phillipp Stolzl’s “The Physician” (2013)


The Players…

Thomas Payne, Stellen Skarsgaard, Elyas M’Barek, Olivier Martinez, Emma Rigby and (good ol’ reliable) Sir Ben Kingsley.

The Story…

Being a doctor in the Middle Ages didn’t mean healing. It meant one was a practitioner of witchcraft in league with Satan, a wretched barber who understood anatomy as well as a young child understands the cosmos, a nosey whelp interested only in the under-dealings of a fair maiden’s crotch.

Needless to say, hundreds of people suffered and died for no real reason. In fear.

Like what took Rob’s mum. Her death meant his family being torn asunder. By sickness. Miserable, inexplicable sickness. By choice of the Devil or God, whomever got to her first. But her passing—Rob’s loss—sparked a notion in his young mind:

What if he had gotten to her first?

The Rant…

And now, for my first trick, I shall perform a feat I have not performed in a fortnight: I shall tackle a film recommended by a friend. An actual human being.

I usually pluck these Standard-worthy movies via endless web-sifting. I have a few go-to sites to gather intel; ever-reliable resources like Rotten Tomatoes, the IMDb, my fave Box Office Mojo as well as minor players like Flickchart, The Numbers and even AllMovie. Sometimes even Wikipedia when I hit trumps. Other scraps are here and there and far too numerous to mention because I don’t want to sound like some cinematic OCD flake. Which I am.

But as for actual, in the flesh recommendations? Few and far between. Few because a lot of what I’m told to watch doesn’t fall under The Standard. I often am told about a bag’s worth of cheeseballs that dropped before the year 2000. I’m not gonna slag on Billy Madison here, despite how ripe a peach that is. And personal opinions of post-millennial features that fared well against an individual’s claim? Again, read above Internet data. It’s called “The Standard” for a reason. And I have some, both standards and reasons. Ask my shrink.

However, sometimes an actual human being gets hip to my MO. They watched a movie from the past (at least at this time of posting) 16 years and thought it was okay, but still for wanting. Some folks were alternately ecstatic/miserable over what they caught, and poked me on FaceBook for some screen time. But to date, after almost 100 installments, only three flesh-and-blood people suggested valid subjects to probe here at RIORI.

Time for some shout outs. Raise yer glass.

My former co-worker Rivers (that’s not really his name, just what we called him) dug Scorsese’s Shutter Island. He badgered me to see it and post my findings. I relented it. He didn’t like that I relented it. He quit our workplace soon after the post. I’d like to think I had something to do with that (our ex-boss’ Machiavellian practices probably had more of an influence than my precious keystrokes). But still Rivers reads the blog on a semi-regular basis, and we both still like DiCaprio, so it’s all good.

My girl’s former guy/presently good buddy got my back on the first Pacific Rim movie. I don’t know whether both of us were in synchronicity when he thunk that movie up, but it jibed with The Standard and was one of the titles that became the backbone of RIORI Vol 1. Hell, seeing the poster on the marquee then was enough to get my dander up. In a giddy kind of way, don’t worry.

And for my third accomplice, here’s the tale: I recently took to re-frequenting my old watering hole as a brief two-hour oasis after my drudgery at work before my responsibilities waiting at home. Due to these stressors at both ends, I required some quiet time. And a beer. A few beers. I used to abuse this old brass rail every night after service from multiple restaurant postings, mostly between 11 PM and “I’m sorry, Officer…” years ago. I’d clock off work, toss off my togs, step into the less fragrant jeans and belly up with that week’s Marvel titles, notebooks, pens and indifference from younger ladies somewhere between three and many pints.

Today? Fewer days, accountable lagers, a mostly sweet wife and daughter at home and a laptop in tow to type up this shingle. But still there’s a decent pitchman behind that bar. His name is Dan.

I was stony the first few weeks back at my old bar. Been a while. Hadn’t gone out to tie one on since 2012. Y’know, right before the Apocalypse. I had a sh*tty day one week like you have every day of the week, and me lagging behind on the stupid blog, not wanting to go home. I felt the need for a blissful cold one. And have a beer, too.

I kept going back. Every other day, balancing between the solitude of the local college library (where smoking indoors is frowned upon), and the bar (where Proust is frowned upon). I returned to the dive not in some self-entitled alky sense, but there are some luxuries of privacy offered only at a bar that a church cannot promise—if you hear what I’m saying. Better put, back in my lushier days, when I got the lowdown question, “How come you’re reading/writing in a bar?” My deadpan response was always, “Because they don’t serve beer at the library.”

So that being said (and my old school barkeep being “promoted” to weekends), I eventually started to tug on his coat on these every other days. No surprise, but we rambled about movies. And I eventually had to ask the apocryphal question:

“Dan, what’s your favorite movie?”

He crossed his arms and set his jaw.

“That’s a good question.”

“S’why I asked it,” I said, pounding the keyboard as if my boot kicked in the bathroom stall locked only by a twist-tie.

He snapped his fingers. He stabbed one at me. He told me something like, “You should check out The Physician.”

And then he told me why I should check out The Physician.

*lights go low, curtains draw back*

So I went and checked out The Physician…

Dateline: England. The Middle Ages. Grime and ruin reigns. Whatever advances the Romans made centuries ago in science, philosophy and especially hygiene have all but dried up. Presently the denizens in and around London just try to scrape together a meager existence towards the purpose of just seeing another day. Black Plague be damned.

That’s what young Rob (Payne) sees in his never-ending mornings. It is until a charismatic barber (Skarsgaard) comes to town with his promising medicine show. Rob knows his mum is sick and maybe he might glean a little knowledge from this tramp’s quacksalver hat of tricks to help her.

Nope. She dies anyway, and poor Rob devastated, traded off to points unknown. Namely, by stowing away in the barber’s horse-cart. The scoundrel takes a shine to Rob’s spirit, and does him the honor of letting him be his apprentice. Now, the drive to learn whatever scourge took away his mother will be put to good use under this man of letters and medicine.

Again, nope. The barber is nothing more than a film-flam man, and has no qualms duping people into his custom “treatments” to steal away their money. He warns Rob to let go his fantasy to become a true healer. He’ll be burned as a witch otherwise, or for mucking about in God’s domain. The populace are wary, if not outright hostile towards doctors, and the Church definitely finds “practicing medicine” sinful. This doesn’t matter to Rob. He’s determined. He’s learned of a medical school in distant Persia, the finest in the world, and there the near mythical Ibn Sina (Kingsley) is revered as the most learned man of medicine there ever was.

Rob’s decision is fixed. Ibn Sina is the man he seeks for answers. He’ll do whatever it takes—sail away from England to the distant Orient, masquerade as a Jew to have access to medical knowledge, even find himself mixed up in political scandal—to become a true healer.

His mum would’ve wanted it that way…

The Physician is one of the most interesting movies I’ve ever scanned here at RIORI. I’m not talking interesting because of an original plot or brilliant acting. It has neither, really. The interest comes from the platter upon which Physician is served. This ain’t your standard Hollywood historical drama like, say, Gladiator or Spartacus. It’s like one of those docudramas the History Channel used to air before those 48 hour American Pickers binge marathons took over (and I have never seen so much antique advertising for Coke in my entire misled life ever).

The problem for most Hollywood historical dramas is that damned historical part. You know Gladiator‘s plot was completely plausible, and hell, Spartacus was based on actual events (adapted from and filtered through Howard Fast’s pen and dubious research). But as we know from both sophomore year Western Civ classes and Tinsel Town’s defiant and desperate need to gild a dead lily, history can be boring. Boring that is, unless you can package the details in a nice, straightforward adventure with very little bullsh*t.

The Physician was made in Germany, a jillion miles away from the California Coast. This might’ve helped.

I guess this could be regarded as my first “foreign film” to skewer. And I really hate that phrase. Foreign Film. Here in ‘Murica, folks likely think that most movies from outside our borders are all artsy-fartsy and are bummed when the actors make funny talk. If you think about it, Gigli was a foreign film in Uzbekistan, so top your popcorn with that.

But anyway, it’s a foreign film. The Physician certainly has a different aesthetic that the above historical dramas. It goes without saying that movies made in other parts of the world are not made like they are in America. Barring language barriers and cultural references, an Akira Kurosawa movie is different from a Francois Truffaut movie is different from a Fritz Lang movie is different from a freaking Guy Ritchie movie. Hollywood pics tend to hack and slash to get their stories across, usually with as much pyrotechnics and Ben Affleck as their googol budget permits.

Not Physician. It’s patient. Not a lot of splash and dash. Sure, there are some wicked action scenes, but they’re reserved until the third act (of which unfolds about four-fifths into the movie. Like I said, patient). The remainder of the time it’s mostly staging. There’s a lot to digest here in Rob’s world, and you can tell at the outset that this story’s gonna take a bit of time out of your day. It feels epic, like you’re in it for the long haul. But it doesn’t feel like a slog, and unlike the aforementioned films director Stolzl isn’t trying to cram down as much info as fast as f*ck as possible about characters/plot/motive/pacing/diet down your throat to evacuate your reluctant bowels. There’s a winding story to tell here. There’s a lot of details. And since The Physician is the classic “boy on a quest” tale, we’re gonna walk many miles with our hero to get to the very nubbin of his purpose.

So what is the purpose here? Well, besides telling a story, Physician smacks of trying to learn ya something. Truth be told this movie felt less like a movie and more like a History Channel docudrama like I mentioned above. Educational sure, but with tits. Not a complaint, mind you (the educational thing, not the boobies). While watching The Physician I could almost hear the dulcet narration of Edward Herrman explaining as Rob set sail, “In England, medical science was a lost, if not forsaken practice, but half a world away in Persia…” True to that kind of tone, it felt that almost every aspect of the movie was calculated. Calculated to lend the audience a serious idea about what was at stake with Rob’s quest, and why it was necessary.

The quest maybe, the plot not so much. Same could be said for the acting. To be honest the first was not that original and the second was not that great. Like I said: boy on a quest. And the impetus for Rob’s quest could be lifted from a trillion other stories of that ilk (Star Wars: A New Hope springs immediately to mind). And our hero can be a whiny whelp like our beloved Luke was. To even suggest Payne’s portrayal would ever garner any awards would be like me jamming up the Academy’s executive toilets with my shoes. Does not flow here. But as I am ever fond of saying here at RIORI (which should become its subtitle, not that “A Social Study…” malarkey) that Physician is more than the sum of its parts. Say it with me now: “It’s not the notes, it’s how they’re played.”

That was very good. You get a gold star for the day. Now here’s your cracker.

Carefully so, Physician plays out like a fantasy, with a little “and now you know” sentiment attached. The movie’s trying to passively “teach” you something, but director Stolzl is just shrewd enough to smack you upside the head with that nonce where a day old salmon fillet would do wonders. There’s precious little sugar with the piss here, and so much so results in head-scratching and the all important “so then what happens?” feeling. I know I felt it for Physician‘s near pushing three hour running time. Me being of the US, some hook better have nabbed my attention, or else I would’ve been screeching “Freebird!” after the first fifteen minutes (“Where’s them titties at?” *takes a hit off the Sterno*).

But to be fair, the show only descended into real melodrama in the final act. Sometimes you gotta throw a possible restless audience a sop. For the duration of Physician, it played out like a wonderful world of discovery. Maybe casting Payne as our hero served us well, him all wide-eyed (and very blue-eyed) as a center for the furrowed-brow rest of us lot. The cinematography, costumes and settings were nothing less than beautiful, and the overall camera work gave us this immense sensation of space. Even when our Rob is reservedly trying to woo Rigby’s Rebecca, there’s the endless dunes of the Arabian desert at their backs. And when our hero finally reaches the mythical city of medical learning Isfahan, it appears like that dumb flag icon from Google Maps wedged within a crevice between angry mountains. The whole MO of Physician is about discovery. Very interesting; them’s the watchwords. The movie’s supposed to arrest certain minds. And at least the rest of it should be of things that make you go, “Hmmm…”

*dodges rotten tomatoes from the early-90s*

So I hope we agree at this point that the acting and plot here is nothing to crow about. So I also hope we agree at this point that this matter don’t mean a sh*t. At the end of the day, The Physician‘s strengths lay within a delicately balanced cradle between “understand this” and “understand that.” Stolzl is very clever in costuming info into entertainment. I might believe that despite this movie being a German film, he knew what bones to throw towards a Sandler-addled audience. The sh*t that might’ve been given a snort in Berlin would’ve caused a book-burning in Columbus so it would be wise to send The Physician overseas, see what kindle it may burn. Too bad it wasn’t a lot, but that acid test might’ve proven that a straight-ahead/science-based quest tale might allure more mature Europeans.

Sorry. Too sharp there? Consider this:

The Shah’s reluctance and admitted ignorance of medicine rather echoes the motives for Rob’s flight from England. Power does not necessarily equal knowledge. So don’t carry a snowball into Congress when Tyson has that viral webcast. Dig?


Right, so the past reveals the present in a tasteful, engaging fashion here. Got it? Good. Lay off the salmon.

But again and truth be told, after watching Physician, there is an odd parallel within the American scientific community warring frustratingly against the American stupid. It’s the kind of conflict that’s been brewing—veritably fermenting—for many centuries. I wasn’t sure if Stolzl was aiming at satire here, for the feel of the film ultimately was a gentle one, no shouldering. But again and again, “Hmmm.” Like I was saying, if The Physician fails to entertain, it’ll succeed in making you think. Hopefully without snowballs.

I guess that last thousand paragraphs read like a mash-up amongst Aldous Huxley, The Clash and a Bill Hicks monologue. Well, so did the film. I’m trying to separate The Physician from the stock here, and it’s a bit of a rough beast. We already know the acting is rote. The story is derivative. And the melodrama (although tasteful) is totally out of place for Rob’s discovery of his world. We’re into ancient History Channel programming that. But then again, isn’t what films like The Physician represent have been lacking from the Picker Channel for the last decade? Maybe. A shrug here.

The biggest strength The Physician has a film is how engaging it is. It helps if you’re a history buff. But it’s indeed oddly engaging for a mid-production film. I say “mid-production” because my American eyes aren’t accustomed to German filmmaking. For instance, it’s pretty remarkable what the film crew did on a relatively low budget. Low by American standards ($36 million estimated). I guess director Stolzl is a disciple of Roger Corman; everything here from the sets to the F/X to the acting is very direct and to the point, almost utilitarian. Very little fluffy melodrama to hamper the story of Rob’s quest. I like that. The Physician is—if you’ll pardon the pun—very clinical in its execution.

Okay, sure. But when the long build-up from England to Persia descends into melodrama, such a hard, angular sell simply needs to be followed with a soft one. All that burgeoning science hokum can only go so far as a flash can do twice as fast. Double quick. With clean epics like this one, again you need to  throw a bone now and again (eg: the big throw down in the final act). You gotta love an oily villain twirling his mustache, and the ever so slight preachiness and cheeze about the glory of healing to be construed as mawkish, but such things are essential to a movie like this. We’re reviewing history here. It can get a little dry, and we can only play that hand for so long a game before we need the swords unsheathed. What I’m getting at is that for most of The Physician we’re getting a history lesson—across a vast world of religion, politics, science and culture clash. All good things, BTW—but in the endgame you need to have a steam valve tripped to make the journey worth your effort, even if only it means to cater to a Western audience. And come on, there’s nothing like siege on a palace of learned men protecting what we as the audience know is worth defending. Chivalry and the preservation of knowledge and alla dat. Remember Dead Poets’ Society? There ya go.

And that’s the most human message The Physician tries to deliver. It’s not trying to be a medieval episode of House. For all the tepid acting, well-worn storylines and a fountain of bathos at the film’s conclusion, the movie wants you to walk away with a feeling of learning something. Perhaps something you hadn’t considered before. It’s meditative and methodical in its delivery, and most importantly The Physician doesn’t pander to its audience, either. It stands upright. It’s not great film by any means, nor is it really that good. But it is interesting. It is engaging. Hell, it kept me awake for over two hours under the influence of whiskey and endless cigarettes. Even Gladiator failed to do that (I had to take three tries to fell that beast, and I ain’t talkin’ Russell Crowe, neither).

So there you go. The Physician. I tried to be as tasteful as I could writing this one, as it was borne from someone’s personal recommendation, which I had to respect. Wouldn’t wanna lose a beer by the man. Nor make him leave his job, y’know. Vested interests here.

Okay. Time to get. You don’t have to go home but you can’t write deceptive songs about becoming a dad clouded by the metaphor of the usual last call ritual.

Thank you.

Now for my next trick, I shall gargle peanut butter.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. A solid film, despite its occasional creakiness. But overall it is quite intriguing. What more could one ask for? Okay, maybe the History Channel resume airing history once more. I’m a picky bitch.

Stray Observations…

  • Cool edit with the opening titles there.
  • “You should stick to whores, too!” Sound medical advice.
  • Never mind the boobies, this movie would be great for high school history class.
  • “My first amputation!” “Mine too!”
  • Hey. Did Rob kill that guy or did the desert “take him?”
  • “My hair could do for a trim.”
  • I really didn’t like the Matrix-esque drama every time Rob takes a pulse. His is not The One one. Whatever.
  • Best. Eye roll. Ever.
  • The circumcision scene is brilliant; Kafka-esque.
  • “Yes, we’ve all gone a little mad. You’re next.” Wanna go?
  • Did everyone back then have lousy appendices?
  • “How pale and tedious would this world be without mystery?” Only Kingsley could deliver a line like that and not make it sound corny.
  • You always gotta go back for the girl. You gotta.
  • The Middle Ages f*cking sucked.

Next Installment…

When I caught wind that there was a movie about one of my fave bands, The Replacements I was stoked. Then I learned it starred Keanu Reeves playing football. Ruh-roh.

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