Dylda (2019) by Kantemir Balagov is a film about human struggle to conceive a life amid ruins, left behind by war. It is also about the ambivalent meanings and practices of care necessary to compose and sometimes upend life. Both of the film’s thematic threads—life after catastrophe and the exigencies of care—powerfully resonate with the current moment of conjoined crises.
The film tells the story of Ia and Masha, two young comrades-in-arms in the Red Army, who attempt to build a life in Leningrad, recently liberated from the Nazi siege during the Great Patriotic War (1941–1945). Ia, an anti-aircraft gunner, was demobilized due to shellshock and returned from the battlefields with Masha’s three-year-old son Pashka. There, she became a nurse at a local hospital, while Masha went all the way to Berlin to avenge the death of Pashka’s father, killed earlier in the war. During a trance-like torpor that Ia came to experience as a result of her injury, she accidentally smothers Pashka with her tall body. Upon arrival in Leningrad, Masha learns about her son’s death, and together with and through Ia, she tries to bring a new life into the world, exhausted and mutilated by war.
Dylda is one of a few cinematographic attempts in Russia to depict what life looked and felt like for women immediately after the war, which many Russians consider the central episode and a culmination of Soviet history. With great skill and nuance, the young film director Balagov conveys the lingering pain amid the destruction, imprinted on the protagonists’ bodies in the form of opening sutures and missing limbs and in the city’s hazy landscapes. One Russian reviewer aptly compared the film to a “contused wound” (film-kontuziya) (Kirienkov 2019). Yet this acute pain is entwined with yearning for life, reflected in the vivid cinematographic details such as burgundy color bloodstains, an emerald green dress, and fresh apples Masha’s suitor brings to her. In Balagov’s view, this entwinement of suffering and desire for life conjures up a fragile world after catastrophe. The film depicts life after the war as fiercely relational, where Ia and Masha are deeply attached to each other. Their uncanny relationship appears as friendship, comradeship, and affection, which many viewers interpret as queer love. How the two women see healing and salvation in each other is sacrificial and manipulative. “I want to be her master,” Ia says to Nikolay, the head doctor at the hospital from whom she tries to conceive a child for Masha. Having lost her son and reproductive organs, Masha forced the idea onto Ia and Nikolay, threatening to report them to the Soviet Interior Ministry for surreptitiously euthanizing hopelessly injured soldiers. Both productive and abortive, this relationality is deeply reparative and constitutive of life after catastrophe.
Care, in its complexity and messiness, is another theme of the film. Balagov puts this burdensome yet intensely desired care at the heart of collective attempts to piece together and orient life amid war-inflicted brokenness. The ambivalence and unsettling intimacy of care is powerfully shown in a scene where the peasant, Tatiana, leaves her fully paralyzed husband Stepan at the hospital for Ia to relieve him from life. In the final moments of Stepan’s life, Ia slowly blows tobacco smoke into his mouth, a simple pleasure for many soldiers on the frontlines. In the patriarchal system, as was the Soviet Union, postwar care work was relegated to women, who were tasked with uplifting the country from the debris of the war. Despite its often burdensome and subjugating nature, care, however, is also presented as life-affirming and serves as a condition of possibility for a life to come. Practiced through mundane gestures and in the interstices of everyday life, care in the film becomes the “beanpole” for a fragile world after catastrophe.
Thus, Dylda provides an intimate glimpse into how ordinary women construct life-worlds and shoulder the burden of care in times of acute stress. Set in a particular historical moment and a specific geographic location with almost ethnographic precision, the film deeply resonates with the current moment of uncertainty and vulnerability brought about by multiple crises. It invites us to consider what elements, affects, and ways of relating to others might constitute a collective life in the aftermath of catastrophe.
Kirienkov, Igor. 2019. "Film-Kontuziya: Osobyi Vzglyad na 'Dyldu.'" Afisha Daily.