'Beanpole' Captures The Devastation That Lingers, Even After War Has Ended

Feb 7, 2020
Originally published on February 10, 2020 12:42 pm
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This is FRESH AIR. Film critic Justin Chang has a review of the new Russian movie "Beanpole," which he says is one of the most exciting discoveries he made at last year's Cannes Film Festival. The movie won a prize at Cannes for its 28-year-old director, Kantemir Balagov and was shortlisted for an Oscar for best international feature. It's set in Leningrad shortly after World War II. Here's Justin.

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: One of the first things you hear in "Beanpole" is the sound of a woman gasping for air. Her name is Iya, and as she comes into view, we see that she is staring into space, experiencing something between a seizure and a fugue state. She has these episodes every so often. Her body freezes up for minutes at a time, immobilizing her and making it difficult for her to breathe. It's an apt metaphor for this bleak and beautifully acted drama, which takes place in Leningrad in 1945, a moment when the shell-shocked Russian populace is struggling to catch its collective breath.

Iya, brilliantly played by Viktoria Miroshnichenko is the 6-foot-tall beanpole of the title. But although she's physically imposing, she's a quiet, recessive presence, speaking rarely and with her eyes almost always cast downward. We learn that she was briefly stationed with the Red Army - it's not entirely clear what her role was - until she was diagnosed with post-concussion syndrome and discharged. Now she works as a nurse, dutifully tending to wounded vets and coming to life only in the presence of her young son, Pashka.

Early on, Iya brings Pashka to her hospital ward, where the soldiers, engaging the boy in a game of charades, ask him to imitate a dog. But as one of them points out, Pashka couldn't possibly know what a dog looks like. They were all eaten during the war. Not long afterward, something unbearably awful happens, the latest blow of many that Iya has to absorb. "Beanpole," directed with extraordinary intimacy by the gifted 28-year-old filmmaker Kantemir Balagov is about how the trauma of war lingers and seeps into everyday life, even after the war itself has technically ended.

The story really gets going when Iya's army pal Masha, played by an excellent Vasilisa Perelygina, returns home from the frontlines. The two women couldn't be more different and not just because Iya towers over Masha physically. Where Iya is shy and withdrawn, Masha is fierce and determined, her dark eyes blazing with mischief. Yet you can tell by the strange, semi-crazed smile that sometimes crosses her features that she, too, has been deeply scarred by her own wartime experience. Masha tries to pick up the pieces of her life, landing a job alongside Iya at the hospital and beginning a flirtation with a quickly smitten young man named Sasha.

But the true focus of the story is her friendship with Iya. These two went through hell together during the war, and for better or worse, it has forged an unbreakable bond between them. "Beanpole" is about the secrets they share and the feelings of guilt, confusion and jealousy that ricochet between them as they try to move forward. It's still somewhat rare to see a war movie that focuses not on the heat of battle but on the difficult, grueling aftermath. It's rarer still to see one this attuned to the emotional and psychological dynamics between women. But "Beanpole" is exceptional in every way.

This is only the second feature directed by Balagov, who wrote the script with Aleksandr Terekhov and was inspired by Svetlana Alexievich's 2017 book "The Unwomanly Face Of War." Balagov works in a deliberately paced, dramatically spare style that admirers of Andrei Tarkovsky, Alexander Sokurov and other purveyors of austere Russian art cinema will immediately recognize. He's also a master of texture and atmosphere. You can see the horror and hopelessness etched in the anonymous faces of the men and women in the background, the ones who move alongside Iya and Masha at the hospital or silently line up to board a streetcar in the public square.

But for all the suffering he shows us, Balagov also has a remarkably beautiful eye. He brings a warm, painterly sense of color to the rundown apartment that the women share, and he dresses the actresses in the same bright Christmasy (ph) shades of red and green that we see in the peeling wallpaper. It's hard to explain how a movie this tough to watch at times could also be so strikingly lovely to look at.

But I think Balagov is attempting something both difficult and profound, and it comes into focus in a final scene that, for all its sadness, is also tentatively hopeful. He shows us that the friendship and love between these two women, even when it leads them to commit desperate, self-destructive acts, can be a life-sustaining force. Without sentimentalizing his characters or their circumstances, he shows us that the devastation of war can be a beginning as well as an end.

DAVIES: Justin Chang is a film critic for the LA Times.

On Monday's show, our guest will be Michael Pollan, who's written bestselling books about the origins of the food we eat and how psychedelics are helping scientists understand consciousness and the brain. He has a new audio book about caffeine, its effect on the mind and body. As usual, he immersed himself in his research, quitting coffee, cold turkey. Hope you can join us.

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