Beanpole is a rending vision of aftermath, conjuring moments of real beauty from misery.
War films have been with us as long as film has been a medium. Less common are depictions of what comes after conflict, presumably because the excitement is over; lingering pain and trauma are harder to dramatize. Kantemir Balagov‘s Beanpole takes a page from Roberto Rossellini’s Germany, Year Zero, imagining the bombed-out aftermath of an epochal conflict — in this case, postwar Leningrad. Iya (Viktoria Mironshnichenko), who’s also known as “Beanpole,” works in a hospital overflowing with soldiers wounded in combat. She cares for a young child, Pashka, and struggles with a form of PTSD-induced seizure. When tragedy befalls Pashka, Iya must tell her friend, Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina), what has happened. It is revealed in due course that Masha just recently returned from the front lines, and was actually Pashka’s mother; she now insists that Iya get pregnant and give her a new child. This is heartbreaking drama, as the two women struggle to go about their lives in a city that has been devastated by war, surrounded by wrecked human bodies and their own wounds, both physical and spiritual.
Balagov, working with cinematographer Kseniya Sereda, conjures a unique vision of hell, with deep, rich colors plastered on the otherwise barren walls and the dingy white surfaces of the hospital. Every space looks authentic, lived-in, and the performances are impressive across the board. There’s no valor here, no sense of honor or a job well done. These people lived through something unimaginable and unknowable. It’s a remarkable achievement by a young director, who manages to conjure an ending so beautiful that it makes the misery bearable. Two women, sitting down and constructing a shared fantasy for the future, even though they both know it is a fiction. The world is bleak, but no amount of suffering can crush this last small flicker of hope.
Published as part of January 2020’s Before We Vanish.