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ODESA 2019

Review: Beanpole

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- The second film by the super-talented Kantemir Balagov is an immensely accomplished post-war drama set in 1945 Leningrad

Review: Beanpole
Viktoria Miroshnichenko in Beanpole

The brightest rising star of a national film industry with a surplus of rising stars, 28-year-old Russian director Kantemir Balagov has followed his strong debut, Closeness [+see also:
trailer
film profile
]
, with the breathtakingly accomplished Beanpole [+see also:
trailer
film profile
]
, which deservedly earned him the Directing Award in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard. The film recently won the Silver Apricot at the Golden Apricot International Film Festival in Yerevan and also screened in Odesa's Festival of Festivals section.

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It is the first autumn in Leningrad after the siege, and Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko), a blonde so tall it earned her the nickname “Beanpole”, works as a nurse in a veterans' hospital. She suffers from a kind of PTSD, which manifests itself as seizures that have her freeze, paralysed, and breathe with the characteristic sound of a person struggling for air. With her is her three-year-old son, Pashka, and the two have a wonderful, loving relationship amid the brutal post-war circumstances.

But at one point, as they are playing on the carpeted wooden floor of their small flat, Iya has one of her seizures and inadvertently smothers the boy under her weight. This is one of the most difficult scenes in cinema in recent years, but only one of the many tough segments of this dark, unforgiving film.

However, soon, a comrade of Iya's returns from the front. This is Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina), a redhead with a manic smile and desperate eyes, and we learn that she is the real mother of Pashka, whom she left to Iya in the desire to go on fighting and wreak revenge on the Germans for the death of her husband. When Masha finds out that Pashka is dead and that she cannot have another child due to what is apparently a shrapnel wound, she demands that Iya have a child for her, claiming that she owes it to her.

If this sounds crazy, it is only the beginning of a story incredibly rich in emotional, psychological and cinematic detail. Many side characters – including the head of the hospital, the army doctor Nikolai Ivanovich (Andrei Bykov), Masha's suitor Sasha (Igor Shirokov), the son of a party official, and a wounded soldier who is paralysed from the neck down and requests to be killed, which his wife goes along with – would even make for intriguing central heroes in a film of their own. And Balagov's immense talent for sustaining tension allows them to engage in a bleakly compelling interplay with the two outstanding main actresses.

Those who have seen Closeness will recognise a similar auteur drive that can feel manipulative, but unlike that film, the setting provides a context in which ethically and emotionally unbelievable scenes can feel plausible, if not exactly natural. They are grounded in realistic characters whose often terrible actions logically stem from deep trauma and horrifying circumstances. Beanpole has an emotional dynamic range as wide as Russia itself, for better or worse: from cruelty and heartlessness to total sacrifice for the one you love, often within just one protagonist.

This is also a film of strong contrasts, which are sometimes overstated. Masha and Iya's complex relationship keeps changing throughout the feature, from one extreme to the other. Visually, the work of DoP Ksenia Sereda is nothing short of breathtaking, with the best images possessing the quality of paintings (one particular shot of Iya and Pashka, smiling, through the fogged-up window of an overcrowded tram is unforgettable). Warm, yellow lighting mellows the squalid living conditions, so much so that even the cracked walls look beautiful. The production design by Sergei Ivanov is lush and detailed, juxtaposing green and red colours to strong effect, which admittedly does wear off by the end of the 137-minute running time.

Beanpole is a production by Russian companies AR Content and Non-Stop Production, and Wild Bunch has the international rights.

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