Not yet 30 years old, filmmaker Kantemir Balagov directs Beanpole, a film that is perhaps the opposite of what his contemporaries are drawn to create. Instead of something of-the-moment, something about frivolous quarter-life-crises in the social media era, perhaps, his is a film with enough despair, confusion and heartache to last a lifetime. Set in post-WWII Leningrad, watching the film is a bit like flipping through an old photo album of the era, the colors all washed out and the expressions listless, absent as they wait for the shutter to snap. Even the pops of verdant green throughout, reminding us of life and new growth, are somehow depressing, desperate as they are to make a difference in a world so in shambles.
Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko) is a nurse at a hospital for war veterans; nearly six feet tall, she towers over her comrades (the “beanpole” of title) during the day and cares for a young boy in her charge in the evenings, always desperate to find enough for him to eat at a time when the rations of dead men are a valuable commodity. Within the film’s first 20 minutes, there’s a moment so harrowing it’s hard to reconcile the rest of the journey Iya and her best friend, Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina), ultimately navigate together in a city and society left in pieces after the war. The women, each with their own motives and coping mechanisms, forge different paths to healing despite how intertwined their lives are. Masha is eager to have a baby, to feel life growing inside of her, something so natural becoming an act of resistance in times as bleak as theirs. Iya just wants to move on, to build a new existence all together with Masha by her side, one where the trauma and horrors of the war don’t get stuck in her throat like a stone threatening to suffocate her.
Balagov, who co-wrote the film with Aleksandr Terekhov, explores a number of themes throughout Beanpole, from class and economic disparities to the role of women in wartime and the collective effort required to rebuild a society demolished by humankind’s own depravity. Iya and Masha are a difficult pair to sympathize with, their choices often difficult to understand or rationalize; which, of course, is the point—what decisions would you make after surviving the wartime horrors they have? The film’s most insightful moment isn’t even its most provocative; Masha has gone with her new boyfriend (Igor Shirokov) to his parents’ house for dinner. Wealthy and seemingly untouched by the misery of war, his mother (Kseniya Kutepova) breaks Masha down with an icy precision, challenging her war experience as one of an opportunist rather than a patriot. Masha’s matter-of-fact response not only puts the woman in her place, it reminds us of the canyon she and Iya have to cross to get from survival mode back to “normal” life during peacetime.
Beanpole is no one’s idea of a good time; it’s a daunting, harrowing film that challenges an audience to trust its creators to send us on a journey worth experiencing. Though Balagov certainly succeeds in crafting something rich in emotion and heavy with meaning, and both Miroshnichenko and Perelygina devastate as women surviving as literal and figurative shells of their former selves, witnessing the way their post-war battles unfold is at best a testament to resiliency, at worst a frustrating exercise in voyeurism.
Beanpole opens in Chicago today at Gene Siskel Film Center.
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