CANNES, France - A bleak morality tale of treason, revenge and dignity, played out in the forested wilds of Nazi-occupied Belarus during World War II, injected a chilling note to the Cannes race on Friday.

“In the Fog”, the austere second feature film by Ukrainian director Sergei Loznitsa, is set on the Western frontier of the Soviet Union in 1942, where local partisans have risen up to battle the German occupation.

The visually stunning, 128-minute movie opens with the camera fixed on the nape of one of three men being led to the gallows by the Nazis.

Gentle Sushenya was wrongly arrested with the saboteurs who derailed a train near his home, but unlike them is set free. Local partisans assume he betrayed his own and two men soon arrive at his home to exact revenge. When they are ambushed, Sushenya narrowly escapes execution, and finds himself face-to-face with his wounded enemy. What ensues is a drawn-out drama charting the fate of the three men, who each reveal their moral fibre during the gruelling trek through wintry forests, punctuated by a series of flashbacks.

The crux of the Russian-language film is the cruel dilemma faced by Sushenya: suspected of an act of treason he did not commit, he cannot prove his innocence, even to his wife, and finds himself unable to face living. “This is not a film about war, it is a film about people who find themselves,” Loznitsa told a press conference after a screening of the film, one of 22 in competition for the Palme d’Or top prize due to be handed out on Sunday.