2019 NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL: When has a Russian historical drama ever been a happy movie? While “Beanpole” doesn’t change that perception, it does manage to be much more than just tragedy porn. Playing at the New York Film Festival, it’s a period piece that takes pains to observe what the struggles of the time were for Russians. However, there’s hope to be found as well, as the film’s characters must find the will to go on and persevere. It’s that aspect, along with the strong filmmaking on display, that makes this such a rewarding experience.
“Beanpole” is a calling card for filmmaker Kantemir Balagov, who is just 26 years old. Despite the young age, his maturity behind the camera gives the movie a ton of narrative heft. It’s just as easy to believe that this was helmed by a crusty veteran who grew up in the shadow of World War Two. However, this was directed by someone who wasn’t born until after the fall of the Soviet Union. That just makes this effort even more impressive.
The year is 1945. The place is Leningrad. Life is hard, to say the least. One look around reveals a city, as well as a population, in tatters. The destruction has taken a toll, mentally, physically, and structurally. Amongst the ruins, two young women in Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko) and Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina), try to find hope, as well some meaning, as they seek to successfully rebuild their lives. The former, known as Beanpole for her height, work in the laundry of a hospital and seems as stricken with PTSD as the soldiers being cared for. Iya has episodes where she barely seems in control of her body. Her young son Pashka (Timofey Glazkov) is popular among the patients and staff, so it’s an even bigger tragedy when an episode of hers accidentally results in his death.
In the aftermath of that event, Iya and Masha, who actually is Pashka’s mother, grow closer. A soldier also traumatized by the war, Masha had sent her child to live with Iya. Now, it’s the two of them, along with the rest of Leningrad’s residents, just trying to survive. How do people go on when all seems lost? That’s what the film is really exploring.
The central performances are riveting. Viktoria Miroshnichenko and Vasilisa Perelygina couldn’t be more different, but they make Iya and Masha equally captivating. Watching them search for hope in Post WWII Russia can be riveting. Miroshnichenko makes Iya just as haunted as Perelygina’s Masha, but the former is often stuck, while there’s a wildness to the latter. All of it is subtle, however, letting these elements be drawn out over time. Supporting turns here, in addition to Timofey Glazkov, include Konstantin Balakirev, Andrey Bykov, and more.
Kantemir Balagov is a man in his mid 20’s. Stew on that for a moment. Often, younger filmmakers like to call attention to their direction, but that’s not the case here. Balagov takes his time with the narrative, to the point where the pacing can drag. However, he’s also captured such wonderful acting here, it’s hard to fault him for utilizing every second of it that he can. Both Balagov’s direction, as well as the script he penned with Aleksandr Terekhov, is built around Miroshnichenko and Perelygina. Their stunning work, mixed with Balagov’s talents, really makes this what it is.
NYFF is a strong home for “Beanpole.” The festival lends some extra luster to an already acclaimed work. The movie will be in theaters next year, specifically in January, so there’s some time before it hits. However, it’s definitely worth waiting for. Brace yourself for a tough experience, but one that’s worth putting yourself through.