Beanpole (Russian, Amazon Prime Video)
Starring Viktoria Miroshnichenko, Vasilisa Perelygina
Directed by Kantemir Balagov
Rating: *** ½
There is no easy way of saying this. But for us worshippers world cinema the lockdown is a boon. Films that we would not have access to immediately, are now coming straight to us on home-viewing medium, and some of this is exceptional enough to make us forget the hard times we are living in.
Beanpole is a very strange name for a Russian masterpiece about two women friends, both soldiers in post-ravage Leningrad after World War 2 struggling to come to terms with their torn and tormented lives. Beanpole or no, this is not an easy journey to follow as the two women, compatriots and lovers, battle their inner demons even as the booming guns outside are scarcely silenced.
It’s a chaotic wartorn zone, with the ruins everywhere suggesting a life that has no relevance beyond survival. Yet there is compassion and love lurking beneath the debris of destruction. When we first meet Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko) known among her colleagues and friends as Beanpole for her exceptional tallness (I am sure the actress wasn’t chosen for her height, nowhere does the casting suggest any compromise), is playing a blissful mother to a 3-year old who, we get to know, soon is not her own child. The doctors and patients in the severely austere hospital where Iya works as a nurse, keep the child entertained mimicking various animals. When someone does a woof-woof, someone else asks, “How would the child know what a dog is? All the dogs have been eaten.”
From early on this film spares us none of the grimness, the horror and hunger of a post-War Russia. In a shocking preamble, the child dies suddenly and Iya is left guilt-stricken and eternally answerable to the child’s mother her only friend Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina).
The rest of this unbearably grim drama sees the sins of slaying been atoned for with procreative efforts that shut the sunshine completely out of the narrative. This is a woefully cheerless drama. Contradictorily the bleak grim silently-accusing granite frames are splashed with striking colours…Masha dancing frenziedly in a green dress, a trickle of red blood at the corner of Iya’s chronically curled up mouth? Does she ever smile? Do these women any clue about the brightness that exists outside their darkened cordoned existence?
The film grows progressively dark and despairing. At one point Iya is forced by Masha to have procreational sex with an aging reluctant doctor, because, well, Iya owes her friend an insurmountable debt. The shadows of guilt forever cloud the lives of the two women. There are no glimmers of joy or hope here. A callow young obsessed boy who wants to marry Masha takes her home to meet his parents. The lengthy plodding sequence ends on a horribly awkward and frustrating note. There is the silver lining to this canvas of cumulative clouds. Even when the two women lovers finally come to a truce there is no happiness in their reunion.
Beanpole tells us that sadness and bereavement are all that we have after the war with the visible or invisible enemy is over. At the end, we are left with nothing but regret. Russian director Kantemir Balagov finds himself a place among the world’s greatest directors with this film. Watch it. It won’t make you happy. But it will leave you feeling curiously clenched and cleansed.