(director/writer: Kantemir Balagov; screenwriter: Aleksandr Terekhov; cinematographer: Kseniya Sereda; editor: Igor Litoninskiy; music: Evgueni Galperine; cast: Viktoria Miroshnichenko (Iya Sergueeva), Vasilisa Perelygina (Masha),  Andrey Bykov (Nikolay Ivanovich), Timofley Glazkov (Pashka), Igor Shirokov (Sasha), Ksenia Kutepova (Lyubov Petrovna), Konstantin Balakirev (Stepan), Olga Dragunova (Seamstress); Runtime: 130; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Natalia Gorina /Sergey Melkumov/Ellen Rodnianski/Alexander Rodnyansky; Kino Lorber; 2019-Russia-in Russian with English subtitles)

“Finely observed period war drama about two women soldier survivors dealing with trauma.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The twenty-something Russian filmmaker Kantemir Balagov (“Closeness”) helms this finely observed period war drama about two women soldier survivors dealing with trauma after the siege of Leningrad, recognized for being the bloodiest battle of the war. It’s set in the autumn of 1945, in a post-war ravaged Leningrad, whose citizens are in a state of shock at the close of the brutal war. Balagov is co-writer with Aleksandr Terekhov. The director said he was inspired by The Unwomanly Face of War, the 1985 oral history of Soviet women’s wartime experiences by Svetlana Alexievich.

The film’s focus is on two magnificent first-time actors, Viktoria Miroshnichenko and Vasilisa Perelygina.

The first heroine is the saintly, tall and willowy woman named Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko), that most people affectionately call Beanpole, who is a nurse in a military hospital (used here as a symbol for the madhouse) headed by the kindly Dr. Nikolay Ivanovich (Andrey Bykov). On a daily basis she deals with soldiers who suffer from serious injuries like amputation of their limbs and also consoles those who have lost their will to live. She’s well-liked by everyone and considered a good nurse. Beanpole also has her own ailments. She suffered a severe concussion during the war and now suffers from ongoing catatonic episodes, causing her to have a locked-in syndrome that leaves her at times short of breath, paralyzed and unable to communicate. When not working, she spends her time raising her six-year-old son Pashka (Timofey Glazkov). What others don’t know is that Pashka is actually the son of her best friend Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina), born on the battlefield.

Masha is the other heroine. She like Beanpole was during the war an anti-aircraft gunner on the Western front, who was there when Beanpole got the concussion. Masha also has a nurse’s job at the hospital and also suffers from her war scars. The more we learn of their close relationship the more we learn of the horrors they went through during the war, as seen in flashbacks and in the close relationship they have in the tiny apartment they share. The two protagonists need each other to survive and find some kind of warmth in their lesbian love for each other, as they sweep a lot of things under the rug but continue in their efforts at healing.

Balagov won the section’s Best Directing Award at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. The striking photography, on a hand-held camera, by cinematographer Kseniya Sereda, is as good as I’ve ever seen when going guerilla style. The serious and ambitious drama plays out as a mature war film, told from a woman’s point of view,  and is just right for those who want to experience the real way wars play out rather than have a war film be only some kind of glorious macho thing.

REVIEWED ON 2/23/2020  GRADE: B+