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Individuals in shock, a nation in shock, a movie in shock – and, by the end, in fact, its audience in shock. These are the states of mind to be experienced in this brutal and brilliant film by 27-year-old Russian director and co-writer Kantemir Balagov. He finds a spiritual world of PTSD with his movie set in Leningrad just after the end of the second world war, inspired by The Unwomanly Face of War, the 1985 oral history of Soviet women’s wartime experiences by Svetlana Alexievich. His movie has absorbed the influence of Alexander Sokurov (with whom Balagov in fact studied) and Aleksei German; but Balagov is a fiercely individual and quite staggeringly accomplished talent.
In the shabby, dreary, numbed city of Leningrad in the autumn of 1945 two young women have found friendship and an intense bond in simply having together survived, in the pure happenstance of having avoided death – or wondering if they have in fact avoided it. Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko) is a tall, ethereal young woman who works as a nurse in a military hospital; her height and an odd baby-giraffe ungainliness has earned her the nickname “Dilda”, or “Beanpole”.
Her best friend is Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina), who soon herself gets a job in the hospital alongside Iya, hired by the careworn medical director who has a fatherly concern for Iya, fixing it so that she can get extra food rations for her six-year-old son Pashka (Timofey Glazkov). What he does not realise is that little Pashka is not in fact Iya’s child but Masha’s: the two women saw action together in the war, but when Iya was invalided home with concussion that still gives her strange paralytic blackouts, she agreed to look after the baby to which Masha gave birth on the frontline. Iya finds a shred of humanity and a glimmer of hope in simply tending to the sick, and even gamely flirts with the quadriplegic soldier Stepan (Konstantin Balakirev); Masha herself finds that she has a well-born young admirer, Sasha (Igor Shirokov). But a terrible event utterly destroys whatever happiness they have found – or rather gives a focus to the horror that was everywhere under the surface all along, in the minds of Iya and Masha, and the minds of everyone who have lived through the nightmare of war and are now expected simply to forget about it. Iya is expected now to make a great sacrifice in a doomed attempt to “heal” their pain.
This is a story of people for whom the horror of war has not ended, for whom peace is the horror of war by other means. When the patients gamely try to entertain little Pashka by imitating a dog, and Pashka does not recognise it, one patient shruggingly asks how the boy would have seen a dog when they have all been eaten. The hospital itself is a time-honoured symbol for the madhouse – or infirmary, or mortuary – that is the nation’s soul. One patient, when presented to a grand lady visitor (who is to play a chilling role later in the movie) behaves strangely, offensively and then blood begins to seep through his white pyjama jacket. What has happened is that his stitches have ripped, a commonplace occurrence which nonetheless has an uncanny effect here: as if the pain and violence he has experienced – along with everyone else – is supernaturally rising to the surface: the return of the repressed. Beanpole is moving, disturbing, overwhelming.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Beanpole review – Russians pay a bitter price for survival | London film festival 2019