Medical student Benjamin has his work cut out for him – a six-month internship to help end-of-life patients in an understaffed French hospital with broken-down equipment.
The earnest 23-year-old (Vincent Lacoste) is up to the challenge – until he stumbles when failing to call for another electocardiogram after learning the one in his ward no longer works. When Benjamin’s patient – a homeless alcoholic with life-threatening health problems – dies hours later of a heart ailment, he is pressed to cover up his oversight and the hospital’s liability by superiors, his father (Jacques Gamblin) among them.
The knowledge of what he did, and the moral compass of Abdel (the compelling Reda Kateb) – an Algerian doctor who is an intern by name only – gives the young student’s initiation into his profession a deeper resonance. It also informs what’s to follow in this revealing look into hospital life and the young lives trained to work in them.
The sense of realism found in “Hippocrates: Diary of a French Doctor” – from the around-the-clock readiness required of party-hardy interns, to their shabby living conditions, and the difficult life-and-death questions they’re confronted with – captured with dark humor by filmmaker and co-writer Thomas Lilti. You can say there was a doctor in the house, since Lilti is also a practicing doctor.
The hospital he presents is a place where the bottom line all too often claims the upper hand over needed patient care. This comes as no surprise to people in the United States, but it’s less expected under socialized medicine. The staff at times also puts self-preservation ahead of patient needs.
Then there are the patients, who can be difficult in their own right.
“Medicine is not a career. It’s a curse,” an intern complains. Benjamin doesn’t believe that, but the Hippocratic oath doctors are supposed to follow is continually put to the test. That’s particularly true when Abdel insists on treating an elderly woman with a pain regimen in defiance of the hospital hierarchy. It also threatens to destroy his medical career, and the dream he has to relocate his wife and children to France.
Abdel shines brightest, and his example isn’t lost on Benjamin or his fellow interns, whose spontaneous protest on behalf of their embattled colleague adds an unexpected political awareness to the film.
The post-script ending feels tacked on, but “Hippocrates” brings insight into hospital life as it both entertains and tackles real-life issues, with a terrific soundtrack to boot. That’s a pretty good prescription.