Russian film “Beanpole”, which was selected as Russia’s submission to Best International Film Oscar in last year, is a bleak and harrowing film about two women who are irrevocably damaged by their wartime experiences. While it is often quite difficult to watch their gloomy drama for many good reasons, the movie firmly grabs our attention with its achingly human moments nonetheless, and it powerfully shakes us in addition to providing a compelling female perspective to its familiar main subject.
The movie, which is set in Leningrad during late 1945, opens with the introduction of Iya Sergueeva (Viktoria Miroshnichenko), a young nurse who is sometimes called ‘Beanpole’ due to her very tall physical appearance. During the World War II, she served in an anti-aircraft gun crew but then got discharged due to a serious head injury, and the opening scene shows her suddenly suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder as her mind becomes numb and her body gets stiffened.
Anyway, the war is over now, and, just like everyone else in the city, Iya has tried to get back to a normal state of life while diligently working in a local hospital. Besides herself, she also has to support a young little boy who is supposedly her son, and we observe how she gets some help from others around her including a kind middle-aged doctor at her workplace.
And then something quite horrible happens. I do not dare to describe it in details, but I can tell you instead that Iya subsequently finds herself in a very difficult circumstance when her old friend/comrade Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina) returns on one day. As a matter fact, Masha is the biological mother of that little boy, and she has aspired to form a family along with him and Iya since the war was officially over.
Once she comes to discern what happened during her absence, Masha becomes quite determined to get what she needs right now, and that is where the movie becomes more uncomfortable and disturbing to watch. As a woman who managed to survive on the front line, Masha is ready to do anything for her ultimate goal, and Iya has no choice but to assist her friend mainly because of not only her guilt but also her longtime affection toward Masha.
As these two women gradually embark on their plan, the movie immerses us more into the stark urban environment surrounding them. While the citizens in the city seem hopeful about the restoration period after the war, things still do not look that good to many people, and food, electricity and other important daily commodities remain to be as precious as they were during the war. When Masha happens to get involved with a lad who is the son of some high-ranking local official, she does not hesitate to get closer to him just for getting some extra food from him, and Iya is not so pleased when Masha later becomes more serious about her relationship with this lad.
Dryly and steadily maintaining its gloomy ambiance around its two main characters, the movie also focuses on the despairing condition of one of many injured soldiers at the local hospital. Due to his severe spinal injury, this soldier is totally paralyzed below his head, and he makes a certain desperate request to the aforementioned doctor shortly after his wife comes to visit him. The doctor initially refuses, but he clearly understands his patient’s despairing status, and his eventual decision leads to a tender but sad moment between the soldier and his wife.
Meanwhile, Iya and Masha’s circumstance becomes more complicated than before. As pushed more by her friend, Iya goes through a very awkward and difficult moment along with her friend and a certain other person, but, alas, she does not get the result wanted by her friend, and she naturally becomes more desperate than before. Later in the story, Masha attempts to step forward to normal life, but then she is slapped with harsh reality, especially when she and her boyfriend meet his parents, who certainly do not welcome her at all because of whatever she did in the name of survival during the war.
Although it shows a little glimpse of hope and healing around the ending, the movie still sticks to its palpable sense of desolation and desperation even at that point. Using Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich’s acclaimed nonfiction book “War Does Not Have a Woman’s Face” as the main inspiration source for his screenplay, director/writer Kantemir Balagov, who deservedly won the Un Certain Regard Best Director Award and the FIPRESCI Prize for Best Film in the Un Certain Regard section when the movie was shown at the Cannes Film Festival early in last year, presents a vivid and uncompromising presentation of barren human conditions caused by wartime, and the overall result is often starkly beautiful as firmly supported by the strong performances from Viktoria Miroshnichenko and Vasilisa Perelygina, who show total commitment throughout the film while never asking us for pity or sympathy on their respective characters.
In conclusion, “Beanpole” is indeed a tough stuff, but it is still worthwhile to watch for its superlative mood, storytelling, and performance, and its several powerful human moments will linger on you for a long time when it is over. In short, this is another memorable movie of this year, and I think you should check it out as soon as possible.