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Five Cent Cine At Home: Beanpole

Two Women

Leningrad. 1945. The Russian city is less than two years removed from the end of a 30-month siege in which a million citizens died, most from starvation. Food remains in short supply; people without enough money and goods live communally in decaying housing, once occupied by the aristocracy; marriageable men are scarce. In such circumstances, asks “Beanpole,” what gives meaning to life?

At the center of this compelling drama by 28-year-old writer and director Kantemir Balagov are two women, each damaged and traumatized by the war and its aftermath. “Beanpole” is the nickname of the very blond, blue-eyed, rail-thin, 6-foot tall, cool and neurotic Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko), a veteran of the Soviet artillery with post-concussive syndrome, and now a nurse in a military hospital serving wounded soldiers. Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina), Iya’s co-worker and friend from the front, is dark and short and round and vivacious, with a captivating and knowing smile, pure charisma. Masha is worldly-wise, pragmatic and clever. A survivor, she knows how to get herself a job, salt and fruit, and sex.

Masha is desperate to have a child, to replace one she lost; it’s the only act she believes can relieve her pain and give meaning to her existence. Iya, in turn, is dominated by Masha—and by a moral obligation to her that colors almost every scene.

In exploring the women’s relationship with each other, and with those around them, “Beanpole” examines morality under enormous stress. What is the obligation of a wife to a permanently paralyzed husband? Of a mother to a child? Of a doctor to a patient who wants to die? Of a person who has taken a life, albeit without intent or fault?

Although the film is dominated by the superb performances of the two main characters, even the minor characters add fascination and depth to their story: the world-weary doctor (Andrey Bykov), the paralyzed soldier (Konstantin Balakirev), the icily-elite mother (Kseniya Kutepova) of the enigmatic, needful Sasha (Igor Shirokov).

Balagov has made a meticulously paced film, full of powerful scenes, many with patient, artful shots.

Balagov has made a meticulously paced film, full of powerful scenes, many with patient, artful shots (Iya repeatedly blowing cigarette smoke in the paralyzed soldier’s mouth as he inhales). It’s also a gorgeous production, reveling in the deep greens and reds of their rooms, the colors of life (Iya and Masha unintentionally smearing green paint on each other, the swirling of a vividly green dress).

It’s extraordinary that Balagov, at 28, has made a film of such depth and understanding, set in a period far removed from his personal experience, and with a great eye for what works on the screen. He won “Best Director” in Cannes’ “Un Certain Regard” category for this, his third feature. The story in “Beanpole,” the acting, and the look of it make it among the best of the year.

Date: 2019 (US release, 2020)

Director: Kantemir Balagov

Starring: Viktoria Miroshnichenko, Vasilisa Perelygina, Andrey Bykov, Konstantin Balakirev, Kseniya Kutepova, Igor Shirokov

Language: Russian; subtitled in English

Runtime: 130 minutes

“Beanpole” ★★★★ (out of four stars)

Available: Streaming, Mubi; rent or purchase Amazon and elsewhere; see JustWatch here.

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Written by 2 Film Critics

2 Film Critics

William Graebner is Emeritus Professor of History, State University of New York, Fredonia, where he taught courses on film and American culture. He is the author or co-author of 11 books and more than 50 scholarly articles, including essays on “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” “The Poseidon Adventure,” and zombie films as they relate to the Holocaust. Dianne Bennett, the first woman to head a large U.S. law firm, is a retired U.S. tax lawyer.

Dianne and Bill were early and passionate attendees at the Toronto Film Festival, and today enjoy the film scenes of Los Angeles, Rome, London, and Buffalo, New York. They began reviewing films for the Rome-based website “TheAmerican/inItalia” in 2016, have maintained a blog on Rome for a decade, and published two alternative guidebooks to the Eternal City. They still can’t resist going to the movies, not to mention the ensuing discussions, sometimes heated, over a bottle of Arneis at the nearest wine bar.

​And that's just the beginning of our reviewing process. For one or two hours we discuss the film, as one of us takes notes. The notetaker transcribes the notes and prints two copies. Dianne or Bill (usually depending on who had the most compelling understanding of the film, or who was most taken with it) writes the first draft of the review--supposedly taking into account the views of the other--which is followed by 3, 4, or even 7 more drafts. At some point, sometimes days later, when we're both comfortable with the result (or accepting of it, anyway), it's done.

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