The traumas of war linger long after the fighting has ended for the characters of Kantemir Balagov's "Beanpole," an unsparingly bleak but compelling tale of two female soldiers striving to rebuild their lives in the aftermath of World War II.
Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko) works as a nurse at a veterans' hospital in Leningrad in the weeks immediately following the end of the war. Nicknamed Beanpole because of her tall, lanky frame and unearthly pale complexion, Iya tends to the injuries of the male soldiers who reside there. She has ailments of her own; a concussion suffered during active duty has left her prone to fits of temporary paralysis. During these episodes she finds herself suddenly unable to move, emitting guttural, gasping breaths; limbs twitching as she struggles for air until the fit passes.
Dismissed from the army a year prior when she was diagnosed with post-concussion syndrome, Iya has psychological ailments to match her physical ones, but she mostly succeeds in keeping them bottled up inside. One of the bright spots in her life is her young son, Pashka (Timofey Glazkov) and she works hard to give him the life he deserves.
Then tragedy strikes, in a scene depicted by director Kantemir Balagov with heart-stopping matter-of-factness. That incident coincides with the return of her friend Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina), giving neither Iya nor the audience time to process what's happened. We learn then that Masha is actually Pashka's mother, and she'd sent her infant back with Iya to keep him safe.
The two women fought together as anti-aircraft gunners during the war, but in all other ways they're polar opposites. Despite her towering stature, Iya shrinks back from the world, while Masha responds with an impulsive intensity and a cruel streak that's only exacerbated by grief.
Masha barely appears to react to the tragic news when Iya finally tells her, but as the films goes on, it becomes quite clear that a lack of reaction doesn't mean it hasn't registered. On the contrary, it may have affected her more deeply than even she might realize, resulting in the sometimes inscrutable actions she takes throughout the film.
Iya and Masha both struggle to cope, and Balagov's film is interested in the many ways in which grief can manifest itself. War forever alters those who experience it, permanently affecting how they interact with the world. The women's experiences have left them numb, so used to regularly processing the worst that life has to offer that they come to expect nothing else.
A perversely codependent bond is formed, as the women lean on each other in ways that don't do either any good. Feelings of love and guilt swirl into a complex and messy concoction, as the friendship between the women curdles into something else entirely.
Cinematographer Kseniya Sereda's saturated color palette fills the frame with deep shades of green, golden hues, and the shocking vivid crimson of blood. The warm tones lend a heightened reality to the film's otherwise grounded view of post-war life.
"Beanpole" was inspired by Nobel Prize-winner Svetlana Alexievich's 1985 book "The Unwomanly Face of War," which gathered oral histories of female Soviet war veterans. And as the tragedies pile up the film sometimes threatens to tip over into misery porn. Despite all the horror and despair, the journey has its rewards, and there are glimmers of hope amid the grim narrative.
It helps that Balagov (who won the Un Certain Regard Best Director Award at last year's Cannes) refuses to see Iya or Masha as merely victims. Like him, we're compelled to try and understand these women, seeing the ways their story echoes the pain felt by an entire nation fighting to find its humanity once again.
Adam Lubitow is a freelance writer for CITY. Feedback on this article can be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org.