The devastating scars of battle mark the landscape of every scene in Beanpole, Kantemir Balagov’s quietly severe second feature. Even though World War II has ended, 1945 Leningrad remains reduced to rubble, its inhabitants shuffling around like hollowed-out zombies while they attempt to rebuild whatever life they can piece together. Children are scarce, as are food and hope, and the lasting effects of the siege of the city threads through the inner life of every citizen, even when the trauma isn’t visible on the outside.
One woman who definitely wears her trauma in full view is Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko), a wide-eyed nurse nicknamed “Beanpole,” due to her willowy figure, klutzy demeanor, and tall stature. The victim of a concussion that got her discharged from active duty, Iya now experiences strange recurring seizures that leave her paralyzed, staring straight forward, making clicking gurgles that quietly echo the ticking seconds of each unpredictable attack. Every time they occur throughout the film, these spells work as both harrowing realism and stark metaphor for the endless repetition of injuries that occur in the aftershocks of war.
Iya’s bouts of frozen fits have become so commonplace at the hospital that no one really pays attention to them anymore, patiently waiting for her to come back to normalcy. But early on, one extended moment of Iya’s paralysis brings a new tragedy: She falls upon Pashka, the small, undernourished boy she’s been raising, and suffocates him. Soon after, as Iya mourns the loss, Pashka’s mother Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina), a wartime friend of Iya’s, arrives, seeking to restart life with the infant son she had placed in Iya’s care years prior. She is stone-facedly devastated to hear that the boy is dead. From here, Beanpole becomes a battleground itself, pitting these two old comrades against one another as they seek healing in the midst of continuing harm.
Masha is damaged herself, an indiscernible half-smile betraying a mind mangled by the violence she’s seen and experienced. Her body is also mangled, scar tissue on her stomach revealing that she no longer has the ability to bear children. Soon, Masha has decided that Iya owes her another child and she sets about arranging for a suitor who can provide the necessary seed for such a transaction. As the plan unspools, Beanpole moves at an almost glacial pace, allowing each woman’s movements and machinations to land as the hopeful grasping that it is.
This is not a war of wits. It’s a battle to find something, anything to fill the internal void torturing both of them. But each decision only seems to add freshly sharp spikes to their steady, dull pain.
Most of the men in Leningrad lie in hospital, nursing post-war wounds. Beanpole stays squarely in the world of women, all of them tasked with picking up the pieces of their demolished home. But hovering around Iya and Masha are some masculine presences both friendly and futile. Warm-hearted Nikolay (Andrey Bykov), a doctor who has befriended Iya at the hospital (and who has gone beyond the call of duty to care for her, offering connections to food when little Pashka was still alive) becomes a potential sperm donor in Masha’s mind. And virginal, mealy-mouthed Sasha (Igor Shirokov) becomes an ineffectual romantic companion for Masha and an incessant nuisance for Iya.
All four of these damaged people are concerned with birthing fresh possibilities in the wake of destruction, but new life is more easily hoped for than actually conjured. Beanpole creeps toward a conclusion that will fly in the face of each of their well-made plans.
Some will leave Beanpole utterly crushed, as it leaves little room for fanciful ruminations on the power to overcome the ravages of war, but the film is not solely a downer. Its slow-moving plot unfolds in meticulously crafted layers that reveal character motivations in uncommonly organic fashion and suggests cautious hope, even in the most dire circumstances. Carefully chosen color also helps to tell the story, with bright reds and greens inching in over the initially drab browns and beiges as Iya and Masha step clumsily toward a new kind of rehabilitation and realize that their complicated relationship might just have more staying power than the violence that has trapped them for so long.
The world of Beanpole and its striving central women might not be able to erase the collective and individual deaths of the past, but in the end, they will be damned if they don’t dare to construct a more livable future. It’s a careful, but effectively faith-filled image for a world that still can’t seem to learn from the continuing traumas of its violent past.