Movie review: Trauma of war lingers in Russian drama ‘Beanpole’
When movies gaze into the faces of women at wartime, it’s usually through the perspective of nurses, refugees and Rosie the Riveter types. That’s what makes Kantemir Balagov’s Oscar-shortlisted “Beanpole” so engrossingly different. It presents the female point of view via two Russian friends who served on the frontlines of World War II as anti-aircraft gunners, both bearing physical and psychological scars that have all but zombified them. They are battle’s walking dead, no doubt envious of the millions of comrades who did not survive.
Exacerbating their debilitating PTSD is the truth that their hometown of Leningrad, scene of the bloodiest siege in all of Europe, is as much an empty bombed-out shell as their souls. Jobs and food are short, but what they crave more than sustenance in the aftermath of peace is a need to again feel - anything. It’s a seemingly permanent stupor shared by all who fill the city’s ice-encrusted streets. You can sense the chill deep in your soul. It’s utterly depressing, a reaction intensified by the environs of a veteran’s hospital, where the pair have taken postwar positions caring for the shell-shocked and maimed. It’s not just a job, it’s a constant reminder of the horror they’ve witnessed.
Yet, that’s not what most interests Balagov in the 28-year-old’s sophomore effort. His approach is far more intimate, zeroing in on a friendship born of war, but maintained by a bizarre type of co-dependence. In pairing Viktoria Miroshnichenk’s lanky Iya (the beanpole of the title) and Vasilisa Perelygina’s diminutive Masha, Balagov creates an instant visual of mismatched mates who literally can’t see eye to eye. All they share is a frosty flat and a deep sense of loss; not for fallen comrades, but for one little boy, Pashka (Timofey Glazkof). He’s Sasha’s son, but when we first meet him, it’s Iya serving as his mother while awaiting Sasha’s return from the front.
An unspeakable accident directly attributed to the periodic concussion-related seizures that leave Iya temporarily paralyzed costs Pashka his life. Iya’s remorse grows unbearable and only worsens upon Sasha’s homecoming. Iya can’t seem to conjure the courage to tell her friend what occurred. “He died in his sleep,” are the only words she can muster. Wracked by guilt, Iya desperately wants to just disappear into the grim-faced masses filling the streets and crowded streetcars, but her towering height won’t allow it. Neither will her conscience, already crippled by numerous assisted suicides provided to her most grievously injured patients.
It’s astonishing how Balagov and his co-writer, Aleksandr Terekhov (inspired by Svetlana Alexievich’s “The Unwomanly Face of War”), bring so much death to life, and doing it while leaving the door ajar to optimism, particularly through Sasha, she who has lost most. Her deep, dark eyes may look depraved, but her heart is always pure, even when blackmailing Iya into taking part in a sickening scheme to replace Pashka. Miraculously, Perelygina enables Masha’s humanity to shine through. Ditto for Miroshnichenk, who provides her finest acting with a minimum of words. It’s all in her glazed, sympathetic eyes and sorrowful posture.
It should be noted that “Beanpole” marks the debut of both actresses, each of whom summons stunningly nuanced turns you cannot shake. In fact, the entire cast is first-rate, with the heaviest impact provided by Andrey Bykov as Dr. Ivanovich, the chief of the hospital staff and Iya’s closest ally, and Igor Shirokov (a dead-ringer for Radiohead’s Thom Yorke) as Masha’s rich and richly stupid romantic pursuer, Sasha.
What all share is a lived-in weariness complemented by the decisions of Balagov and director of photography Ksenia Sereda to shoot in an appropriately exquisite sepia tone interrupted only by rich splashes of color, mostly vibrant greens, symbolic in psychology for illustrating the balance between head and heart. It’s also representative of growth and renewal, lending the hue even more meaning as the story progresses.
I won’t kid you, even with the brushes of hope, “Beanpole” is a rough ride, and definitely not for the squeamish or weak of heart. The issues addressed are troubling and often inhuman, but stick with it, not just for the story, but for the oddly moving respects Balagov pays to real-life female warriors, women whose only superpower was their guts and unbending fortitude. For them, “Beanpole” stands as a towering tribute.
Al Alexander may be reached at email@example.com.
Cast includes Viktoria Miroshnichenk and Vasilisa Perelygina.
(Not rated. In Russian with English subtitles.)