The scene is the former Leningrad in 1945, a few weeks after the close of World War II. The characters in Kantemir Balagov’s Beanpole are what’s left after the horrendous two-and-a-half-year siege of the city by the German invaders, in which some 800,000 civilians perished from cold and hunger. Russian audiences presumably know by heart the details of Leningrad’s suffering. American moviegoers may not. But the devastating war and its lingering effects are a vital component of director Balagov’s subdued character study, written by the director with Aleksandr Terekhov.
Tall, skinny Iya (played with quiet intensity by Viktoria Miroshnichenko), nicknamed “Dylda” (Beanpole) for her appearance, is a nurse at a military hospital caring for traumatized veterans. Iya is reunited early in the film with her friend and former anti-aircraft-gun comrade Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina), who has just returned from the front in a restless, precarious emotional state. In fact, almost all the people in the two women’s lives are war-weary and still unabashedly in basic survival mode. Their body language is wary, tentative, tiptoe-paced, as if waiting for disaster to reassert itself.
Against that atmosphere of suppressed anxiety, the two women try their best to establish “normal” lives for themselves. It is brought out that the young boy Iya has been caring for is really Masha’s son, and that Iya has lost her own child. The movie, a very specific slice of life from a stressful period of Russian history (what period of Russian history is not?), essentially shows how Iya and Masha pick up the pieces, and not much else. Beanpole is not a wide panoramic drama of gigantic clashing concepts. It keeps to a tight, small circle, with much of the characters’ struggles going on just beneath the surface.
In certain light, Iya’s pale, angular face is pretty frightening. The two women contend with the shortage of available men, but it becomes clear that each one is her best friend’s ideal companion, for now. Happiness is glimpsed in tiny moments, such as when Masha exults in a newly made green party dress. “Can I twirl?” she asks no one in particular. Her uniform with its battle ribbons eventually gets set aside. She and Iya are slowly settling into a peacetime mood, where there’s time for a little tenderness. Their emergence is something to see.