At once a deeply compelling character study and an affecting human melodrama, “Beanpole” begins in Liningard, Russia 1945, right after Russia’s involvement in WW2, and the film runs all the way through the reconstruction of the post war period through 1951, in what was ruled under Joseph Stalin. At the heart of this grim morality tale is the tale of survival about two women combat war pilots (Yes women were pilots in WW2 from many nations) who attempt to start a new life during the aftermath and ruins of World War II. Both of these women are enduring uncertainties within their future, their hardships runs deep–they sadly don’t have the resources to sustain themselves into the Soviet society—and filmmaker Kantemir Balagov makes no compromises in capturing the agony and desperation these women must abide to.
“Beanpole” is a Russian term for being clumsy, and that is the name given to Iya (Victoria Miroshnichenko), a very timid and insecure woman who is very thin and tall. Once the war ends, after serving on the front lines of the war, Iya works as a nurse at a hospital in Leningard where she treats wounded soldiers recovering from the war. During the film we see Iya raising a young boy Pasha (Timofey Glazkvov). Everyone thinks Iya is the boy’s mother, but the boy’s mother is Iya’s close friend Masha (Vasilla Perelygina), and Iya goes on pretending to be the childs mother. During a tragic night, Pasha is accidentally smothered to death from an overlong hug by Iya who doesn’t realize she is smothering him–The scene reminds you from the devastating moment of Lennie accidentally killing Curley’s wife Shirley in “Of Mice and Men.” Instead of overly grieving for the young child’s death, Masha and Iya continue to live on with the painful grief and embark on finding on living together.
During the course of “Beanpole,” the characters look for survival in a the ultra-impoverished Soviet system that is trying to rebuild its economy after the war. The future looks very uncertain, and as we know through history things never improved in the Soviet Union, and even to this day Russia has issues with authoritarianism as they moved from Communism into a more nationalistic and capitalistic system. The characters live on with trauma and they have no assistance or diagnoses in how to handle or unravel their own mental health. Balagov captures their world through a sense of isolation, there are a lot of wide shots that heighten their displacement along with pools of green, red and yellow that echo the ravishing cinematography and color pallets of “The Double Life of Veronique.” Balagov also uses great dialogue exchanges and minimal background music, the whole feel feels discomforting and disconcerting.
What makes the film so engaging is how journey these characters endure towards poise and dignity. There is a beautiful scene of Masha going with her boyfriend Sasha (Igor Shirokov) to meet his wealthy parents who reside in a large home as Sasha explains he wants to marry her. You can sense the judgment in the room as Masha honestly explains her wartime past and her desperation she had to embark on in order to survive. The performance here by Perelygina is done with rawness and grace, and the film uses great empathy in defining Sasha’s livelihood.
“Beanpole” shows how desperation and governments decisions and politics potentially make an imprint on every aspect of a citizen’s life: work, leisure, intimacy, and even love. These two women attempt to navigate themselves through personal and political arenas, the movie expertly explores the domains merging together of what innocent and desperate people went through during Russia’s reconstruction era.
Menawhile, once Iya discovers that Masha wants her to give birth to another child (A claim Masha says she owes her), this forces her to make tough decisions in going against her true sexuality of being with a man since Iya is attracted to Masha and is a lesbian. Masha’s realization of Iya’s love for her is quite revealing, Iya summons herself on Masha during an unyielding scene that explores how both women are dealing with their own repressed desires and they don’t know how to handle it. The film because more about friendship and the dire sacrifices that comes with it.
The film’s last, most powerful and moving reel dissects the issues of trust, redemption, and betrayal about what defines true, authentic love. Considering the film is a sophomore follow-up, Balagov (who is only 26 years old) has made a humanistic portrait that feels like it was made by a more mature and wiser voice. It’s fair to suggest that, at the very list, the chronicle of friendship illuminates the fine line between oppressors and victims and the circumstances citizens and their government pay by living in a society that disregards their trauma and interests–which leads people down a path of social Darwinism and desperation. “Beanpole” is a delicate study of individuals coping from trauma that eventually becomes a triumph of hope and dignity.