There are not enough Tom and Jerry cartoons in existence to compensate for the level of hopelessness represented in the Russian film Beanpole, which won its director/co-writer Kantemir Balagov the Un Certain Regard Best Director Prize at Cannes in 2019.
Two women are at the center of a story that takes place in the last days of World War II in Leningrad, where both the spirit of the city and its people are broken, becoming the very worst versions of themselves, and it takes a kind of heroism to just survive moment to moment each day. The portrayals of lead characters Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko) and Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina) are delivered in micro-levels of despair, apathy, and manic attempts to find inner hope, depending on the scene.
The spectrum of female characters span from the powerful to the most at-risk, often juxtaposing them or putting them together so we can witness the cruelty and the small mercies women show or offer to each other. Forgiveness is in as short supply as are the dogs being eaten by the city’s starving population. Finding it becomes a nearly insurmountable task to those struggling with atrocities and loss.
Controlling their rage is often impossible, though it expresses itself in a myriad of ways. One wonders if Balagov’s female characters, who are complex, tragic, and often wholly unlikeable, stem from misogyny, or a deep, nonjudgmental curiosity and compassion for women, and the way a society in crisis crushes them underfoot.
Either way, it’s an exceptional film, although it is an absolute necessity to brace yourself and fortify your optimism before a viewing.
4 out of 5 stars