The war is over in “Beanpole,” at least officially. The hollow eyes of those crowding the hospital tell a different story, as do the faces of those drifting through a communal building, spilling through the streets and onto trams. But like the thin young nurse nicknamed Beanpole, the men and women in this startling movie don’t complain or even speak much about their suffering, perhaps because it would be like describing the air that they breathe.
Set in Leningrad in 1945, “Beanpole” opens on its title character (Viktoria Miroshnichenko) in mid-seizure, her body frozen, open eyes fixed and breathing labored. Other women, similarly dressed in white, bustle around her, their voices muffled. From a slightly high angle, the camera steadily holds on her face as she stares into nothingness.
Then someone stretches a hand up to pinch her cheek, trying to rouse her and bring her back to the dimly lit present. Beanpole, whose real name is Iya, is taller than everyone else in the room, taller than almost everyone. She sways far above this world, even when it claws at her.
Most war movies are about battle; “Beanpole” is about what happens afterward. For Beanpole, a hospital nurse, the clamor of war has quieted to an unremitting throb. At work, she cares for soldiers whose bandages and missing limbs are only the most obvious expressions of collective trauma.
The pain is everywhere. Early on, when Beanpole can’t secure a babysitter, she brings her boy, Sasha (Igor Shirokov), into the soldiers’ ward. As this painfully small child stands before the attentive, visibly moved men, his tiny, malnourished frame — embodying such unspeakable loss — seems to fill the ward.
Something terrible happens soon afterward, and while it’s almost unbearable, you should hang on. This is only the second feature from the sensationally talented Russian director Kantemir Balagov (who was born in 1991), and it’s a gut punch.
It’s also a brilliantly told, deeply moving story about love — in all its manifestations, perversity and obstinacy — one that starts to take shape when Beanpole’s friend Masha (a fantastic Vasilisa Perelygina) returns to Leningrad, medals pinned to her uniform. Inside Beanpole’s claustrophobic flat, with its peeling paint and stained wallpaper, they circle each other, trying to find equilibrium where there is none.
Balagov, who wrote the script with Alexander Terekhov, fills “Beanpole” with blasts of saturated color — near-vibrating reds and greens — richly textured faces and seemingly minor incidents that feed the larger story. With Masha’s return, the narrative weight shifts to both women, who fit together uneasily. Small, compact, with dark hair and preternaturally bright eyes, Masha makes a bold, visible contrast with the ethereally pale Beanpole — her very being seems molded from other, stronger material. Sharp, wily, a touch feral, she is also a survivor who, soon after she returns, makes Beanpole her victim.
“The awful thing about life is this: everyone has their reasons,” as Jean Renoir puts it in “The Rules of the Game,” set on the eve of World War II. Masha has her reasons for turning on Beanpole, which she articulates with terrifying ferocity. Beanpole’s seemingly docile acquiescence to her friend is more opaque, her motives emerging over a story that eventually involves Masha’s ridiculously insistent suitor (Igor Shirokov) and a soulful doctor (Andrey Bykov).
Yet even as the emotional stakes turn crueler, the tenderness in Beanpole’s unspoken yearning, as well as flashes of beauty and dark comedy, keep brutality in check.
Every so often in war movies, a woman — a nurse, prostitute, mother or stranger — is dropped into the story to express some vague idea about home and nation. An emblem of the lover or the mother left behind, she is the generic movie woman of war who embodies the prize that must be protected, which also makes her a rationalization for the fight.
There is no such figure in “Beanpole,” and instead of recycling platitudes about men and the righteousness of violence, this movie tells a tough, unsparing story about war trauma, which seeps into souls and bodies and inevitably becomes — Balagov suggests — a generational bequest.
★★★★ out of 4 stars
Rating: Not rated. In subtitled Russian.