Inspired by Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich’s book “War’s Unwomanly Face,” Kantemir Balaogov’s masterpiece is one of the great films of this century. Set in Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg) at the end of the Second World War, the film boasts two unforgettable performances.
Viktoria Miroshnichenko is Iya, nicknamed “Beanpole” because of her unusual height, who works as a nurse in a Leningrad hospital under the direction of Dr. Nikolay Ivanovich (Andrey Bykov). Iya was allowed to come back from the front early because she suffers from seizures which render her immobile. She lives in a communal apartment with Pashka (Timofey Glazkov), her adorable three-year-old boy (or so we assume). There is a funny yet heartbreaking scene early in the movie when the wounded soldiers in the hospital ask little Pashka to bark like a dog. As Pashka stands there with a confused grin on his face, we realize, as do the soldiers, that Pashka has never seen a dog since every last one of them was eaten in the first few weeks of the Siege of Leningrad.
One evening as Iya and Pashka are playing and cuddling, Iya has a seizure and falls on top of Pashka, smothering him. A few days later, Iya’s best friend Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina in the movie’s other great performance) returns to the front dressed in uniform. It transpires the Pashka was Masha’s son – she gave birth at the front and sent the baby back with Iya. It also transpires that in addition to their assigned role of anti-aircraft gunners, Iya and Masha’s other job at the front was servicing the male troops. Masha has a scar on her abdomen, the result of a botched abortion, and she may not be able to bear any more children.
The death of Pashka is not discussed, and Masha, seemingly unfazed, invites Iya out to dance. They meet two men, but only Masha ends up having sex in the back of a car. As the movie progresses, we realize that Masha is very bitter about the death of her son and that Iya is in love with Masha. We learn that Iya is a participant in Dr. Ivanovich’s euthanizing of quadriplegic and paraplegic soldiers who do not want to live any longer. Meanwhile, Masha has started dating Sasha (Igor Shirokov), the man in the car. However, their relationship comes to an abrupt end when, at a met-the-parents luncheon, his mother (Kseniya Kutepova) realizes that Masha was stationed at an “army base wife” at the front.
“Beanpole” conveys, better than any other film I know, the ability of human beings to find moments of intimacy and even love under the most horrific of circumstances. Balagov uses stunningly executed long takes to convey the suffering of his characters and contrasts these with intimate closeups of Iya with Pashka and Iya with Masha. Not since Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson in Ingmar Bergman’s masterpiece “Persona” have two great actresses merged with such power and beauty.
Winner: Best Director: Un Certain Regard: 2019 Cannes Film Festival.
Nominated: FIPRESCI: Un Certain Regard: 2019 Cannes Film Festival
Nominated: Queer Palm: 2019 Cannes Film Festival
Nominated: Prix Un Certain Regard: 2019 Cannes Film Festival
Nominated: Best Actress (Viktoria Miroshnichenko) 2019 European Film Awards
Short-Listed: Oscar: Best International Film of 2019 (Russia)
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