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Beanpole, a Russian drama from director-writer Kantemir Balagov, is about two young women who struggle to start life anew after staring down annihilation during World War II. Sympathy for these women runs deep—they don’t have the resources to fully integrate into normal society—and yet Balagov does not shy away from how their inexperience leads to disturbing conclusions.
“Beanpole” is a term of endearment for Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko), a desperately shy woman who stands at least a head above everyone around her. The war has been over for a few months, and after serving on the frontlines, Iya now works at a Leningrad hospital where her patients are all convalescing soldiers. For Iya and her patients, one source of joy is the young boy Pashka (Timofey Glazkov). Everyone assumes Pashka is Iya’s child, but his mother is Iya’s friend Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina), and Iya does not correct their mistake. Masha returns to Leningrad shortly after Pashka dies under tragic circumstances. Rather than grieve the child’s death, Masha and Iya go through the long, painful process of making a new family.
No one in Beanpole is quite sure how to live again. Some characters have chores and responsibilities, so their days are not empty, but they can hardly fathom what a future looks like. Many of the characters have PTSD, and there is no attempt to diagnose their condition, let alone understand it. Balagov heightens this isolation through uncomfortable close-ups, long scenes of awkward dialogue, and little background music. Wan pools of yellow light offer little sense of comfort, and some sequences unfold in disorienting darkness.
What makes this film watchable and compelling is how the characters stumble toward a sense of basic dignity. This is clear in a scene where Masha goes with her boyfriend Sasha (Igor Shirokov) to meet his well-to-do parents living in a large house with abundant food. Masha defiantly explains her complicated wartime past even after Sasha’s mother suggests she is a whore. Perelygina’s performance is matter-of-fact, not defiant, as we learn the true cost of survival on the front. Another key character is Iya’s boss Nikolay (Andrey Bykov), who works as a surgeon. He longs for simpler days where he can treat routine ailments, and since he is a little bit older than everyone else, he understands Masha and Iya need more than bandages or prosthetics.
It is remarkable that director Bagalov is under 30 years old. Beanpole is a mature film, one with a firm understanding of history and human behavior, so it’s easy to assume the director is a master filmmaker in the mold of Tarkovsky or even Zvyagintsev. Instead, Bagalov is wise beyond his years with an unhurried style that never slacks, and a keen sense of history. If Beanpole has a direct influence, it is Ingmar Bergman’s Persona. Both films are about two women with indescribable needs and their imperfect attempts to state those needs to one another. Masha and Iya are both broken people, and their tragedy is that they cannot form a whole together, no matter how much they might want to.
In the final scenes, ones that are carefully observed and tenderly acted, characters make desperate promises to each other in a crowded one-room apartment. Bagalov achieves a unique tone: He lets the audience know these promises are empty, but gives the characters just enough hope and delusion to believe them. Few dramas, let alone one from a filmmaker this young, are this specific or accomplished. After confronting death for years, these characters have more than earned that luxury, though they may not realize it is fleeting.
Beanpole opens Friday at Landmark E Street Cinema.
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