Beanpole ★★★½

“Where would he have seen a dog? They've all been eaten.”

War may be over for the citizens of Leningrad in 1945, but in Kantemir Balagov’s devastating and crippling ‘Beanpole,’ everyone is just beginning to grapple with the physical, emotional, and psychological burdens of their demolished city and lives left in tatters. Through the broken emotional rubble of this framework emerges a story of a traumatized woman returning from war (Vasilisa Perelygina) to retrieve her son from her best friend, the slender and tall Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko) - recovering from her own post-traumatic syndrome - and discovering a new horror and trauma awaits.

Balagov’s detached post-war film was adapted by co-writers Balagov and Aleksandr Terekhov from Svetlana Alexievich’s book, “The Unwomanly Face of War.” Morose in tone and glacially paced, its a severe watch at times, but Balagov depicts the story’s impending doom with a clear sense of aesthetic choices. Iya and Masha’s friendship is toxic - they both want to restore a sense of purpose to their lives, but Iya prevents her best friend from finding any salvation. As the world they live in continues to crumble, there is an almost detached sense of reality from Masha’s perspective, having probably seen some of the worst horrors imaginable as a soldier. Practically nothing deters her now.

Transforming into a heartbreaking and empathetic tale of morality, guilt, PTSD, ‘Beanpole’ is fantastically performed and gorgeously directed. Balagov has set his film largely in tones of dark amber, bright green and red, and filthy yellow redolent of old incandescent lighting - and it’s the red of upholstery, Soviet imagery, and blood that cuts most forcefully through the brightest of those greens. Cinematographer Kseniya Sereda’s color palette recalls that of Krzysztof Kieślowski in the way that it gives settings an artificiality that nonetheless brings the grounded sociopolitical commentary of ‘Beanpole’ into greater focus. Iya, like the film’s other characters, feels trapped in trauma. Her psychological state is magnified by the more visible scars of the soldiers recuperating all around her, adding to the sense that Balagov’s hermetically sealed vision of Leningrad only compounds and reflects Iya’s PTSD onto her.

In a film that is so disinterested in conforming to accustomed mainstream movie audiences taste and rhythms, and is committed to its sometimes difficult choices, the bold and exacting ‘Beanpole’ sometimes feels damn-near radical. There have been many great directorial debuts in 2020. Still, this searing drama about surviving a siege and then living with the wreckage that remains is bracingly potent and one of the most bruising debuts I’ve ever witnessed.

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