Thomas Lilti’s Hippocrate is a warts-and-all look at the life of a junior doctor starting his career as an intern in a Parisian hospital and it’s a damning portrait of what is often reputed to be the best health system in the world. Like crisis-ridden countries everywhere, French doctors are having to deal with budget cuts, long hours, overworked nursing staff, a lack of essential equipment, etc and all credit to Lilti for sounding the alarm bell over a system that is gradually falling apart. But Hippocrate would have made a better case for change if Lilti had interwoven his insights into a proper story. Without a narrative, there is no tension and drama and the little action that exists is submerged beneath long sequences showing the daily routine of a large public hospital. Although well-crafted, Hippocrate is strangely unmoving.
We meet Benjamin (Vincent Lacoste) on his first day as an intern. Surprisingly he has chosen to work in the same ward where his father, Professor Barois, (Jacques Gamblin) is head doctor. He works closely with another intern Abdel Rezzak (Reda Kateb) who has already qualified as a doctor in Algeria, but is forced to work as an intern so he can eventually practise medicine in France. All foreign doctors have to follow this rule which drives a wedge between young French junior doctors and their foreign counterparts. Through a lack of experience Benjamin is responsible for the death of a patient and his father and other doctors on the ward cover up his mistake. But when Abdel takes a stand against the treatement given to an elderly patient, he is sanctioned and his career as a doctor in France is effectively over. Benjamin cannot accept Abdel’s punishment and decides to defend the man who has become his friend.
Lilti has undoubteldy drawn on his own training as a doctor to portray the grim conditions facing today’s medical interns. It’s a sobering thought that young people just out of medical school are expected to make life and death decisions without the supervision of qualified doctors. And it’s shocking to realise that qualified foreign doctors are reduced to the level of intern until they have proved their worth to the French health system. Hippocrate certainly doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to criticising the faults of a system which includes the misuse of these much needed skills. But, the film is not without touches of humour. Nurses and doctors alike are fans of Hugh Laurie’s hit American TV series House which is often seen playing in the background on hospital TV screens and there are lighter moments when Benjamin struggles to get to grips with his role as a doctor.
This is Lacoste’s first time out as a serious actor. He is known internationally for the adolescent comedy The French Kissers (Les Beaux Gosses) which was a surprise hit in France and for which he won the prize for Most Promising New Actor at the 2010 Lumiere awards – the French equivalent of the Golden Globes. He has a certain hang-dog charm which sits well with today’s youth and does a nice job as the gauche Benjamin. Unfortunately he is totally outclassed by Kateb who is in a different league altogether. He made his mark in Oscar winning director Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty and was excellent alongside Tahar Rahmin in The Prophet. In Hippocrate he is brilliant as the unassuming, compassionate Rezzak who rises above hospital politics to focus on one of the basic tenets of the Hipporcratic Oath – “I will prescribe regimens for the good of my patients according to my ability and my judgment and never do harm to anyone”.
Watch Hipppocrate for Kateb’s performance alone.