Twenty-eight-year-old filmmaker Kantemir Balagov’s Beanpole, a film about two female combat veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder in World War II-era Leningrad, wasn’t exactly a walk in the park, but his debut, Closeness (2017), ditches much of its vibrant lyricism to even darker effect. Balagov drew from actual events that took place in the North Caucasus town of Nalchik, near his childhood home of Chechnya, in 1998. Twenty-four-year-old Ilana, aka Ila (Darya Zhovner, a remarkably open-faced performer), who favors overalls and bulky sweaters, works in her father Avi’s garage. She’s close—possibly too close—to her brother, David, who is preparing to propose to his girlfriend, Lea. Ila doesn’t look forward to losing her best friend, though she’s involved in a relationship of her own. Since her Jewish parents (Olga Dragunova and Artyom Tsypin) would never approve of Zalim (Nazir Zhukov), a Kabardian, she has to sneak out of the house to meet up with him.
The situation would be precarious enough, but then David and Lea are kidnapped on the night of their engagement. Ila’s family doesn’t believe they would get a fair shake from the police, so they seek help from their synagogue. The rabbi solicits funds on their behalf, but it isn’t enough, so Avi considers selling his garage, packing up, and moving away. It’s a pattern to which Ila has grown accustomed, and she’s tired of it. After an altercation with her parents, she runs off to stay with Zalim, but he and his crack-smoking, anti-Semitic friends present a different set of problems. Then, while flipping channels and playing videos, they end up watching grainy footage from the 1999 Dagestan massacre (the reason this release comes with a content warning). It’s not the only thing that rattles Ila, but it’s enough to send her back home, at least temporarily, only to find that her parents are now considering marrying her off to a family friend in order to raise the remaining funds to get David back.
As they all try to figure out the best course of action, the closeness that binds them becomes more suffocating than sustaining. Balagov, in concert with Zhovner and talented cinematographer Artem Emelyanov, really puts you in these cramped spaces with her as they appear to grow smaller. Dragunova also deserves credit for a largely passive performance as her mother that takes a surprising turn when things really get desperate. Though the family has their synagogue, they’re otherwise alone in a town that hasn’t made them feel welcome. They can’t live without each other, but living with each other appears to have reached the breaking point. The ending manages to be conclusive and inconclusive at the same time as Balagov solves one mystery while leaving another unresolved. Not an easy watch, but definitely recommended. (K. Fennessy)