Year:  2019

Director:  Kantemir Balagov

Rated:  NA

Release:  October 25 – November 17, 2019

Running time: 130 minutes

Worth: $16.50
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Viktoria Miroschnichenko, Vasilisa Perelygina, Konstantin Balakirev, Andrey Bykov, Olga Dragunova

…a depressing ride that might just make you thankful for the tears.

The year is 1945. World War II has concluded, and Russia is in the process of rebuilding. Set in the city of Leningrad, director Kantemir Balagov’s sophomore feature is the story of Iya (Viktoria Miroschnichenko) and Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina), two hospital workers trying to continue their lives in the face of widespread tragedy.

As captured by Kseniya Sereda’s sickly and jaundiced photography, the depiction of Leningrad is one of utmost dread. Watching this film is like seeing an entire country in the depths of suicidal depression, a void of numbness so pervasive and deadening that its inhabitants are in search of something, anything, that can make them feel again. It is almost crippling in how uncomfortable it gets, to the point where child death not only sets the tone for this over-two-hour golem of misery, we’re barely 20 minutes in when that moment strikes.

Against that backdrop, the story of Iya and Masha and their respective responses to their personal trauma almost feel like a domestic reprieve from what’s happening around them. Echoing post-war sentiment regarding women – both in terms of how employment drastically alters in war time and as their base biological position as part of the effort to continue life – their mere presence in the story seems to buck against social norms regarding gender.

Through their individual circumstances regarding child-rearing (Iya is capable of having children but struggles with conception, while Masha is infertile), what should be rather tragic in how bodily autonomy takes the backseat, almost turns into plain-faced domestic drama. The stance of putting one’s society above one’s own body is Soviet in its logistics, but when put in context with the protagonists’ histories as mothers and surrogates, it winds up being the most pleasant aspect of the story. That, and the surprisingly rousing bit of crisis management at its conclusion that sees the sickly yellow give way to a vibrant, life-affirming green.

With all that said, there is a major barrier to entry, and it’s one that is rather synonymous with even the greatest entries of Russian cinema – the pacing. In-step with the dour numbness of the setting and tone, this film tends to drag in places, not helped by how it ends up relying very little on dialogue to carry the story. Those who thought that Leviathan was too slow should probably give this one a miss.

But for those with the patience to traverse it, Beanpole will provide with a dour and all-too-effective look at post-war collective depression, both in its debilitating effects on the populace and the kind of chasm-bridging hope that is needed to cure it. Bolstered by terrific performances and the kind of preternatural skill that makes Balagov a filmmaker to keep an eye on, it’s a depressing ride that might just make you thankful for the tears.

Beanpole won both the FIPRESCI Prize (critics) and Best Director in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes 2019.


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