The long history of Russian directors who have confronted the ravages of war ranges from Andrei Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood to Mikhail Kalatozov’s The Cranes are Flying. Like these films, Kantemir Balagov’s Beanpole is set during World War II.

Beanpole, which is available on MUBI, has been inspired by the Nobel Prize-winning writer Svetlana Alexievich’s novel War’s Unwomanly Face. The film revolves around two deeply damaged women.

Both of them have served on the front. One of them has been discharged after developing a condition that renders her immobile for short periods. The other has a nose bleed and psychological scars that show up in her intense manner and unnerving smile.

They meet again in Saint Petersburg, as the war trundles to a close. Iya is the “beanpole” of the title – so tall that she towers everyone else in the crammed tram that she takes every day and the hospital where she works as a nurse. Despite being impossible to ignore, Iya – modest, reserved, eager to please – would rather blend into her surroundings.

Iya has been fostering Masha’s son Pashka. But when Masha turns up one day, Pashka is nowhere to be seen.

Masha’s reaction is to seek the nearest dance hall. The fates of the women, guided by circumstance and a power dynamic that puts Masha in control, is explored by Balagov with unremitting ferocity as well as immense compassion.

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Beanpole (2019).

While the brutality of conflict plays out in specific ways for Iya and Masha, the film also reveals the reality of the men who fought in the trenches. Iya’s boss at the hospital is a doctor whose movie-star handsome features are crumpled into the weariness of a man who has seen too much too soon.

Nothing fazes Nikolay – neither a request from a patient that violates his Hippocratic Oath nor a demand by Masha that would have seem bizarre in any other situation except this film’s present.

Masha’s dalliance with the wealthy but put-upon Sasha and Sasha’s flinty mother Lyubov leads to one of the film’s most heart-rending scenes. Beanpole has long takes, intimate close-ups, and a shot-reserve-shot shooting style that brings out the emotional complexity of what is being expressed. In Masha’s conversation with Lyubov, we see both women in their respective frames, one revealing her attitude towards working-class Russians used as cannon fodder and the other spilling out the truth of what she and countless other women have endured.

Rather than the sombre grey-brown palette usually associated with the grim war drama, Balagov dunks his movie in bloody reds, shocking greens and warm yellows. Cinematographer Ksenia Sereda (her credits include episodes of the hot new American series The Last of Us) creates a hothouse world in which emotions run amok behind a facade of stoicism.

It’s hard not to see the period drama as an allegory for Russia’s more recent military aggressions on its neighbours. Whether at the hospital as well or at Iya’s stuffy apartment, the price paid by individuals for decisions taken on their behalf is written on the body and seared into the psyche.

Beyond its political context, Beanpole is an astonishing feat of cinema, with an immersive narrative style, powerhouse performances by Viktoria Miroshnichenko (as Iya) and Vasilisa Perelygina (as Masha) and memorable turns by just about every other actor. As a portrait of a country eating its young, Beanpole tells us as much about Russia’s appetite for war as do news reports and editorials.

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Beanpole (2019).

Also read in the ‘Start the week with a film’ series:

In ‘The Banshees of Inisherin’, a civil war comes home

‘The Good Boss’ and what they don’t teach you at management school

In ‘Deliverance’, the survival of the nastiest