(2019) Drama (Kino-Lorber) Viktoria Miroshnichenko, Vasilisa Perelygina, Andrey Bykov, Igor Shirokov, Konstantin Balakirev, Kseniya Kutepova, Alyona Kuchkova, Venjamin Kac, Olga Draugunova, Denis Kozinets, Alisa Oleynik, Dmitri Belkin, Lyudmila Motornaya, Anastasiya Khmelinina, Viktor Chuprov, Vladimir Verzhbitsky, Vladimir Morozov, Timofey Glazkov. Directed by Kantemir Balagov
Leningrad (now known as St. Petersburg, the name it was originally given that the Soviets changed following the Revolution) suffered more than most cities during the Second World War, enduring a protracted siege from the Nazis that left it a barely functioning pile of rubble.
In this city, Iya (Miroshnichenko), a tall gangly blonde woman who seems uncomfortable in her own skin, works as a nurse in a veteran’s hospital; she herself manned anti-aircraft guns until a medical issue forced her out of active duty. The issue? She is prone to seizures resembling fugue states, in which she is unable to move or speak, breathing in a torturous, terrifying death rattle until the seizure passes. Despite this, she is raising a son Pashka (Glazkov) until tragedy strikes.
Shortly thereafter, a comrade from the war, Masha (Perelygina) is released from a hospital stay of her own. Iya, who is known by the somewhat insulting term “Beanpole” for her height, helps her get a job at the hospital and Masha moves in with her. The two share a common bond although both are polar opposites; whereas Iya is gentle and awkward, Masha is forward and manipulative. She is unable to bear children due to her injuries and wants Iya to have one for her; Iya is reluctant to but eventually gives in. Masha chooses Nikolay (Bykov), a doctor at the hospital who lacks the courage of his own convictions, to be the father.
The dynamic between the two women is at the center of the film and their friendship which is at times toxic and at other times tender, is the film’s crux. Miroshnichenko, who oddly resembles a young Tilda Swinton, is an amateur actress appearing in her first feature film, as is Perelygina. Both women do solid work here and the friendship between the two characters is made believable despite the differences between them because the actresses give the roles depth and character.
The film is based on the oral histories of the period by Nobel Prize-winning author Svetlana Alexievich and her book The Unwomanly Face of War. I haven’t read it myself but both women certainly exhibit the signs of PTSD that modern combat veterans display which points out the disparity that most films on the subject tend to portray the problems that men face, even though women are now going to war in greater numbers and suffering from the condition to the same degree. I’m sure it is not an honor any woman particularly wants to have.
The real heroes here are cinematographer Kseniya Sereda and production designer Sergey Ivanov, who present vividly-colored apartments and bleak external vistas. Even though the movie drags sometimes and has a tendency to become a little melodramatic, you’ll never get tired of looking at it.
REASONS TO SEE: Brilliant use of color and expressive cinematography come to the forefront
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit on the soapy side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is sexuality, graphic nudity and some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: It was Russia’s official submission for the Best International Film category at the most recent Oscars.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/9/20: Rotten Tomatoes:91% positive reviews: Metacritic: 85/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Enemy at the Gates
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: I Am Human