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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