The characters packed into the streetcar of calamities that is Kantemir Balagov’s Beanpole seem remarkably cheerful as they rattle along on the movie’s bloodied tracks—or if not cheerful, then accepting, if not accepting, at least numb. The blows they receive to body and soul strike so early and often in the plot, after having piled up so terribly in the backstory, that it’s futile to pick any one as decisive. (In that sense, Beanpole makes the very concept of spoilers a joke.) Just say that the setting is Leningrad, the time autumn 1945. You understand at once that if these people seem to react strangely to their daily journey from disaster to catastrophe, it’s because they’ve already endured everything.
In a military hospital, patients who have gathered around a tiny visitor playfully ask the boy what sound a dog makes, then shrug when he fails to join in the game. Of course, say these famine survivors, where could he have seen a dog? For your part, you wonder where else these men could still see a child. The entire ward has assembled to marvel at this one’s existence.
Death has become so omnipresent here that it’s a subject more for negotiation than mourning. When a staff member dies, the lean, hollow-cheeked officer-surgeon who runs the hospital, Nikolay (Andrey Bykov), pulls aside one of his nurses, Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko), to tell her he’s going to leave the matter unreported. He’ll keep his lamented colleague on the books and pass the food ration on to her. He knows it’s needed for Pashka, her canine-ignorant starveling.
At this point, it’s not clear what other bargains Nikolay and this nurse may have made with each other. All you know is that Iya, the beanpole of the title, is young, reed-thin, a head taller than anyone around her, and so translucently pale that her eyelashes shine as if covered in frost. She is the first person—you might even say the first object—to appear in Beanpole. The movie opens on a medium close-up of her standing immobile in the middle of the hospital laundry, her eyes blank, her mouth agape, with a steady, high-pitched whine on the soundtrack conveying the only thing in her head. “Frozen,” the other nurses say when Iya falls into this state. She comes out of it, eventually. She smiles at them, hardly even embarrassed, and goes back to work.
One evening a short, dark opposite number to Iya—her friend, nemesis, helper, debtor, and soon-to-be creditor Masha—shows up unannounced and bangs on her door, with half the residents of the communal apartment crowded behind to gossip and advise. Still buttoned up in the sparsely decorated uniform she wore to Berlin and back, Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina) walks in on Iya with a suitcase of assorted items for personal use or possible barter, an unstoppably assertive monologue, and a life-is-shit smile. Even from your seat in the theater, you can smell the layered odors of musk, damp wool, and autumn chill wafting off her. When fresh evidence emerges about life’s devastation—it takes only five minutes—Masha’s response is to keep smiling and calmly order Iya to get dressed. They’re going dancing.
The indomitable Russian spirit? Spare me. That would be too polite a cliché for the Masha-Iya dynamic, with its cycles of rage and paralyzing despair, bottomless guilt and self-loathing, the will to survive and the flinging away of any emotion that might impede survival. These are all understandable—no, rational—responses to Beanpole’s exhausted world: its ocher plaster, yellowish light (washing through an atmosphere of melted wax, you might think, or nutrient-deprived urine), and bright, frequent nosebleeds, and its textures of damp tile, limp hospital bandages, and patched-together wallpaper (here a picture torn from a reference book, there a scrap of journalism). Compliant, perpetually dazed Iya would seem to be the helpless innocent in this setting, except for what you eventually see her do. Masha would seem to be the bossy cynic who respects only her own gut, except that a significant part of that belly turns out to be gone. Which is to say that moral judgments are possible in Beanpole—you make them in every scene—but are as slippery as the lies the characters continually tell one another and as disorienting as Balagov’s occasionally dizzying shots.
In case that dizzying business makes it sound as if he is merely trying to be clever or provide the latest confection of cinematic miserabilism, let me give the credentials of Beanpole. Balagov trained with Alexander Sokurov, from whom he apparently learned never to set the camera down anywhere without thinking and never to use an image on which he wouldn’t stake his life. (His accomplice in making these images is cinematographer Ksenia Sereda, who, like Balagov, is not yet 30.) The screenplay, which Balagov wrote with Alexander Terekhov, was inspired by Svetlana Alexievich’s oral history The Unwomanly Face of War. Her book, of course, gives a collage effect, whereas Balagov and his collaborators want to steep you in an invented, progressively deepening totality. What unites the two works is a sense of contact with emotional realities as absolute as they are extreme.
Despite the suffocating pressures of physical pain and death in Beanpole—or rather because of them—the most overwhelming of these emotions is the yearning for new life. Again, let’s not make sentimental pretenses. This concerns sex, about which Masha has no illusions and Iya feels only dread. One of the women, having accepted a nighttime ride from strangers, hauls the shy, hesitant driver right over the seat for a hump. The other, having been told to wander off for a walk with the driver’s friend, returns him to the car with a broken arm. Differing needs, let’s say. But as Leningrad descends into winter and Masha becomes ever more insistent, she forces a devil’s bargain with Iya, much as the surgeon Nikolay did. Sex, like death, is a matter for negotiation.
Many critics have rendered judgment on Beanpole as it has made its way through festivals, gathering prizes on the way toward a US theatrical release that began in New York, at Film Forum. On due consideration, though, I feel my task is not to judge this movie but to live up to it, an aspiration that I can’t hope to realize. Maybe the best way to fail is to summarize Beanpole by saying it’s about an old world that is still experiencing death pangs postmortem and a new world that can’t be born, no matter how its surviving members struggle to revive. Of course, this précis is inadequate in two ways. It does no justice to the enthralling intensity of the relationship between Iya and Masha (and the conviction of the actresses, who are making their screen debuts), and it offers no insight into why a team of young filmmakers has chosen this subject matter.
On one level, that question isn’t hard to answer. As the Shoah is ever-present to many Jews, so can the siege of Leningrad be a continuing reality to Russians—including Sokurov, for example, who returned to this ground zero even in Francofonia, when the film he’d been commissioned to make was supposed to be about the Louvre. Perhaps Balagov and his collaborators share this sense of responsibility toward their history, but I suspect something else is going on as well in Beanpole, as revealed by a telling absence in the production design. Although the film goes to near-obsessive lengths to re-create Leningrad 1945 and ’46, all the images of Stalin and Lenin are missing. I consider this omission to be a clue, not an erasure. To paraphrase a too familiar line from Faulkner: The past isn’t communist in Beanpole. It isn’t even past.
Whatever emotions the characters experience in the meticulously reconstructed world of Beanpole, the filmmakers would seem to confront in post-Soviet Russia, mutatis mutandis, as if Putin’s image might fill the void left on screen. (Indeed, Sokurov shut his film foundation last July, citing the “unfriendliness and aggressiveness” of Putin’s Ministry of Culture.) Imagine that a dead world is still in agony, a new world cannot be born, and even so, people of Balagov’s generation need to go on.
But this suggestion is only speculative and too abstract for the experience of the movie. The best summary of Beanpole would be not a statement of theme but an image. I’ll choose one from early in the film, when Iya carries little Pashka onto a jammed streetcar and Balagov cuts to their point of view. Crammed into the rear, the two see their reflections smiling at them from the window, fogged by the car’s humidity into a twilight dream. It’s a rare moment of happiness in Beanpole, called up out of poverty itself. It’s heartbreaking.
As the great documentarian Patricio Guzmán approaches his 80th year, he continues, as always, to serve as a witness to repression and resistance in Chile, past and present, but he has taken on another role as well, which he might not have anticipated in his youth. He now has accepted the burdens of a poet. The astonishing and relatively late addition of beauty to truth in his work began in Nostalgia for the Light (2010), which discovered stunning correspondences between the astronomers who work in Chile’s Atacama Desert, peering deeply into the universe’s past through their telescopes, and the mourners of Pinochet’s victims, who sift on hands and knees for the remains of corpses dumped in this remote vastness. Guzmán subsequently moved from the desert to Chile’s coastline and archipelago in The Pearl Button (2015), which found its political and poetic subject in water.
In The Cordillera of Dreams, Guzmán completes what turns out to be a trilogy. He focuses his camera and thoughts on the third great geographical feature of Chile, the Andes, which he says he never thought about in his youth or even bothered to look at because “the cordillera was not revolutionary.” Now, returning as an expatriate, he wonders if the mountains might be enduring repositories of Chilean memory—like the survivors of the dictatorship, or artists, among whom he now claims a place.
The memories and reflections begin with sublime flyovers of the Andes—too easy a sight with which to thrill an audience if Guzmán did not immediately complicate the effect. He also shows Santiago from above and moves from soaring vistas of the mountains to tight close-ups of cracks in the rocks: vertical surfaces whose network of lines seems like a pattern for the horizontal street grid. Improving on this visual conundrum, Guzmán makes it seem as if a panorama of the mountains could be magically glimpsed through the passing windows of subway cars, then reveals what you have been seeing is a hyperrealist mural in La Moneda station. The only time most people in Santiago bother to look at the Andes, he remarks in voiceover, is when they’re in the subway. As if to ensure that moviegoers don’t make the same mistake, he takes his camera to Spain to visit the studio of Guillermo Muñoz Vera, the semi-expatriate artist who painted the mural.
From Muñoz Vera, Guzmán moves on to visiting other artists in his search into the “mystery” of the Andes and how the mountains might be “the gateway to an understanding of present-day Chile.” So he interviews the sculptors Francisco Gazitúa and Vicente Gajardo, who live in the Andes and make works from its stone. They take the conversation further, into thoughts about the Andes’ traces of an ancient, ongoing, indigenous culture—which many Chileans prefer to ignore—and about the emotional effect of the massive, enduring mountains, which make people feel both protected and isolated.
With that, Guzmán is off: revisiting places in Santiago that he hasn’t seen in decades (including the house where he and his friends worked on The Battle of Chile), interviewing people about their childhood memories of the 1973 coup and subsequent years of state terror, and speaking with the author Jorge Baradit about the psychological myths that drove the Pinochet regime, with its notion that political opponents were inhuman embodiments of evil and so had to be destroyed. (Talk about wanting to feel both protected and isolated.) All this leads to the artist who figures in the movie as Guzmán’s alternative self: the videographer Pablo Salas, who did not become an expatriate but remained in Santiago, recording at great risk more than 35 years of street demonstrations, including (no matter who was in power) the brutal responses.
Nothing fundamental has changed, Salas says. Pinochet’s institutions remain in place. The official line about the dictatorship is one of denial. (Mistakes were made.) Meanwhile, neoliberal policies have transformed much of Santiago into a landscape of corporate high-rises, which, seen from the air, look like a cheap glass-and-steel cordillera. The rows of black plastic video boxes threatening to crowd Salas out of his home are also a mountain range of sorts: a towering monument of memories, and a growing one. Guzmán shows devastating excerpts from the recordings, dating as far back as the early 1980s, and goes with Salas to street protests today—a documentarian recording his alter ego in the course of recording.
The Cordillera of Dreams is ultimately a movie about the path not taken and the history that cannot be undone. It strains at times to link this theme to the Andes—the metaphor is neither as ready to hand nor as compelling as the one Guzmán had in Nostalgia for the Light—but the import is more personal. Toward the end of an invaluable career, upon completing a trilogy that now stands like a bookend to the three parts of The Battle of Chile, he has amply earned the right to speak of himself. There he is, metaphorically, at the end of The Cordillera of Dreams, figured in the mountains as a lone, tiny rock climber making his way up the immense face of history.