Beanpole ★★★★

Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko) suffers from post-concussion syndrome after fighting on the frontlines during the Siege. Now a nurse in a musty Leningrad hospital that heaves with the dead and dying, she’s prone to sudden fits of paralysis; her muscles freeze, her voice is swallowed by a feeble croak, and her long alabaster body is no longer under her control. In these vulnerable moments, Iya truly earns the nickname that gives “Beanpole” its title: The crane-like twenty-something — whose white eyebrows make it seem as though the cold she experienced in the army may have altered her on a genetic level — goes stiff as a stick, and would tip right over at the slightest touch.

Iya’s condition may be unique, but she’s far from the only character in Kantemir Balagov’s stolid yet achingly sympathetic post-war drama who’s struggling to regain a hold on themselves. Many of the wounded soldiers in Iya’s hospital have been deprived of their own autonomy; Stepan (Konstantin Balakirev), the most hopeless of the survivors, can’t feel anything below his neck, and pleads for the kind of mercy that no one can grant him under the law. Even in a time that’s subject to new rules of moral accounting — a time in which men are relieved to hear that two of their three children are still alive, and streetcars run over suicidal people like potholes — Stepan is hard-pressed to find the help he needs. But his plight, however tragic, is utterly simple compared to the one that’s waiting for his favorite nurse.

Inspired by Svetlana Alexievich’s book “The Unwomanly Face of War,” Balagov’s frigid “Beanpole” tells a glacially paced but gorgeously plotted story about two women — two best friends — who grow so desperate for any kind of personal agency that they start using each other to answer the unsolvable arithmetic of life and death. The chipped green paint of Iya’s apartment walls, the sour white light that soaks the hospital windows, and the 600 meters of period-perfect set that Balagov’s “Roma”-caliber production team built for the transportive exterior scenes all cohere into a vivid snow-globe of space-time in which everything is believable, but nothing feels quite real.


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