The main character in Dylda (Beanpole), might be cruelly characterized as an odd duck. Beanpole — real name, Iya Sergueeva (newcomer Viktoria Miroshnichenko, looking like nothing less than a cross between Shelley Duvall and Candy Clark in The Man Who Fell to Earth) — towers over everyone who works beside her in a veteran’s hospital in post-Great Patriotic War Leningrad, her height and leanness earning herself the titular sobriquet from co-workers.
Previously serving near the front as an anti-aircraft gunner but mustered out of the service after suffering a concussion — which still manifests itself in incidents where she finds herself frozen to the spot and only able to communicate via short, gasping grunts — Iya cares for a ward full of wounded soldiers, including Stepan (Konstantin Balakirev), who’s been paralyzed from the neck down. She’s also responsible for Pashka (cute as a button Timofey Glazkov), the frail four-year-old boy temporarily left in her care by her fellow gunner and closest friend Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina).
On the eve of Masha’s return from the front, an accident leaves Pashka dead, and Iya finds herself beholden to her old friend in awkward and difficult ways. Masha’s grueling wartime experiences — culminating in a serious operation — have left her barren; now childless and unable to become pregnant she begs her comrade to bear a child for her with the grudging (and blackmailed) assistance of head doctor Nikolay Ivanovich (Andrey Bykov).
Things don’t go as planned for anyone, but such is the grief and trauma visited upon all of Beanpole’s characters by the war that any additional misery and suffering barely seem to register. Death haunts this film, which includes an unsettling scene where Pashka is urged to imitate a dog by a recuperating soldier; when the child balks, another patient responds “where would he have seen a dog? They’ve all been eaten.”
Nikolay’s children are dead; Masha’s husband and child are dead; Stepan — unable to do anything but move his head and speak — wishes he were dead. This is not a cheery film, nor is it for the faint of heart: there may be no battle scenes in Beanpole, but the war still hangs heavily over everything that happens to its characters.
Kseniya Sereda’s distinctive, otherworldly cinematography captures the poverty-stricken desperation of the late-1945 Soviet Union in hues of green and yellow. Indeed, this might be the yellowest film since John Huston’s failed 1967 experiment Reflections in a Golden Eye, but happily, Sereda knows when to stop. Unlike Huston’s cinematic misadventure, Beanpole never descends into sickly, jaundiced farce.
Written and directed by 28-year old Kantemir Balagov — who displays sensitivity towards and knowledge regarding the material that belies his extremely young age — Beanpole eschews the sort of brainless, flag-waving patriotism too frequently exhibited by recent Russian cinema (I’m looking at you, 2013’s Stalingrad). It’s a potent reminder that war doesn’t end when the guns fall silent.