It’s hard to describe “Beanpole,” the second feature from Russian director Kantemir Balagov. After the movie premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2019, Balagov walked away with the best director prize for films in the sidebar known as Un Certain Regard.
It’s easy to see why. This is a tour-de-force film, drawing on the classics of Russian literature but putting a new spin on tales that often focused on men. This time, the women take center stage, specifically two who were anti-aircraft gunners on the Russian front and who have returned to Leningrad in 1945 — with the city in tatters after being under siege.
The film opens with Iya, a tall, beanpole-type woman who is working as a nurse in a hospital for those who are recovering from wounds suffered during the war. Iya, it is clear, is also suffering. She has what we call post traumatic stress disorder, but she literally freezes up at odd moments, making no noise except an odd click that emits from her neck. Newcomer Viktoria Miroshnichenko plays Iya with a damaged elegance that echoes Tilda Swinton.
When she’s not at the hospital, she tries to take care of a young boy who is clearly undernourished but has a special bond with Iya.
Within the first 30 minutes, however, a tragedy strikes that is probably one of the most shocking scenes you’ll witness this year. And then things get complicated quickly, as if you’re descending into the dark territory of a Dostoevsky novel.
And that tragedy marks the arrival of Masha, played by Vasilia Perelygina, who has just returned to Leningrad and was best friends with Iya on the Russian front.
If Iya is a wounded giraffe, Masha is a wounded deer who has suffered far more than is immediately obvious.
Iya helps her get a job at the veterans’ hospital, and life becomes quite complicated, with sexual tensions, mercy killings, blackmail and more. But it’s best to say no more about the plot.
The director, who also co-wrote the screenplay, says he was inspired by “The Unwomanly Face of War,” written by Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich. The Nobel committee said she was given the 2015 prize because of “her polyphonic writings, a monument to suffering and courage in our time.”
“Beanpole” departs from the nonfiction writings of Alexievich, of course. But it is yet another remarkable piece of art that reminds us of the almost unimaginable darkness and suffering of Russian history.
What’s more, it’s beautifully filmed, with bold colors trying to overshadow the tattered postwar life in Leningrad.
The movie is streaming via Austin’s Violet Crown Cinema. If you love Russian literature — and Russian movies — you don’t want to miss this one.
Starring Viktoria Miroshnichenko and Vasilia Perelygina
Directed by Kantemir Balagov
In Russian with English subtitles
Running time: 137 minutes