The brutal face of war

Women who served in World War II cope with trauma and tragedy in Beanpole

BEANPOLE, Drama, not rated, 130 minutes, in Russian with subtitles, The Screen, 3.5 chiles

Beanpole is tough to watch, but it’s well worth the effort. It’s set in the months after the end of World War II in Leningrad, where scarcely a cobblestone or a human soul has survived the German siege undamaged.

At the center of 28-year-old director Kantemir Balagov’s second feature are two young women. We first meet the title character, Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko), dubbed “Beanpole” for her ungainly height. She’s a former anti-aircraft gunner and is now serving as a nurse in a hospice for badly wounded soldiers. She herself was released from military service with a post-traumatic condition that leaves her prey to seizures that cause her to freeze and blackout.

It’s difficult to discuss the plot without spoilers. Suffice it to say that early in the film, as a result of her affliction, something terrible happens to Iya that informs and drives the rest of the story. Soon after, Iya’s friend Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina) arrives back in Leningrad from her own tour of duty at the front, and she is equally devastated by the tragedy.

This is an anti-war story without battle scenes but strewn with reminders of the ghastly costs of war, the ravages to body and spirit, the loss of limbs, the purpose and principles and, sometimes, the will to live. It’s a love story with sexless nudity and loveless sex, but steeped in a deep affection that can be by turns tender or terrifying.

Balagov tempers his bleak story and renders it more watchable with the brilliant use of color provided by cinematographer Kseniya Sereda. Much is made of the color green (which may represent the spring of rebirth and hope) and red (which seems to suggest the more angry and emotionally violent passions). Even the backgrounds of the rooms and streets of war-battered Leningrad come softly alive with unexpected color. Much of the lighting is equally extraordinary, with one memorable scene, a key close-up of the two women in profile, bathed only in the amber light of a match.

The pace sometimes feels agonizingly slow, but even that exaggerated torpor serves a purpose. The film (loosely drawn from Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich’s 1985 book, The Unwomanly Face of War) explores death, blackmail, betrayal, catastrophic injury, illness, and women’s struggle to survive as second-class citizens in the course and aftermath of war. These are the grim veins mined in a powerful film that will compel your attention even as you fight the urge to turn away.

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