Beanpole ★★★★½

I deem it reasonable to assume that everyone should have a basic understanding of what a matryoshka nesting doll is and what it looks like. But imagine, if you will, that you don’t and you are on holiday in Saint Petersburg and you stop by a little souvenir shop tucked between a liquor store and a rundown watering hall. As you execute your brief window shopping experience your eyes register a petite wooden figurine that’s brightly coloured and unusually ornate. You may ponder its beauty or maybe even glance over it without giving it too much thought; but you never even think of picking it up. And hence you would miss out on the fact that this little knick-knack houses seven more little dolls, each one more intricately decorated than the other.

My thoughts on Kantemir’s Balagov’s Beanpole are somewhat symmetrical because it would seem that the bulk of the discourse surrounding this film revolves around its stark portrayal of the post-WWII destruction, the painstaking process of shedding wartime dehumanization and rebuilding a society nearly brought to the brink of extinction by a conflict of truly apocalyptic magnitude. But underneath this undeniably interesting and beautifully designed cinematic edifice the filmmakers hid an intimate account of an astonishingly complex friendship between two women scarred by the war. And within that story they nested a commentary about the price women pay during times of strife. And inside it a bold and perhaps difficult to process review of gender dynamics dictating the terms of relationships between men and women in those dire circumstances. And further on they placed a subtle reminder that all of this is consistently underpinned by class divisions between the haves and have-nots. As you can imagine, Beanpole is much more than its superficial thematic space – it is a thematic nesting doll whose reach doesn’t really stop at trying to contextualize the unimaginable sacrifice Russian people had to make to secure a semblance of peace. The film goes much further and as we proceed inward to examine the nested themes, we should realize that this examination brings us ever so closely to commenting on currently important matters and the state of Russia as a whole.

Perhaps it is natural for Russian filmmakers to gravitate towards such bleak and difficult themes because hard times breed ambitious art. However, they exhibit a general propensity to tackle such sombre ideas as wartime dehumanization, violence against women, class-based injustices and many other tragedies using a language of visual poetry. Consequently, as much as it is an utter horror to sit through and process at times, Beanpole is a gorgeous film. Beautifully shot and deliberately staged to involve absolutely unforgettable tracking shots and long single takes, a trait of Russian cinema in its own right, Balagov’s film is an extremely interesting specimen. Thematically rich – in fact much richer than many give it credit for – and artistically accomplished, this matryoshka is surely not to be missed.

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