Best Foreign-Language Film

Directed by Kantemir Balagov

Set in Leningrad during the bleak, cold months after World War II, Beanpole finds a city and its people hollowed out by trauma and deprivation. But coursing through writer-director Kantemir Balagov’s wintry vision are defiant jolts of color — especially the greens of polished gemstones and springtime grass, bright and unflinching. On thick woolens and hospital walls and in the peeling layers of ornate Old World interiors, this green will not be denied. There’s a beauty and a madness to it, mirroring those of its central characters, a pair of former soldiers, young women bound and divided by their secrets and their harrowing laments.

Viktoria Miroshnichenko’s Iya, a towering figure of white-blonde pallor, hovers between the dead and the living. She’s a nurse ministering to injured servicemen while suffering the aftereffects of her own time at the front as a gunner. Vasilisa Perelygina’s seemingly sturdier Masha is no less damaged, perhaps more so. Their complex interdependence spins around one woman’s fugue-like spells and the other’s determination to extract what she believes life owes her. Theirs is a dark tango between numbness and a surfeit of feeling.

Inspired by Russian Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich’s oral history The Unwomanly Face of War, Balagov is urgently concerned with women’s combat experiences. But the grief of men is crucial to his story, with its unforgettable portraits of a world-weary doctor, an unloved son and a soldier desperate to die. Watching Iya share a cigarette with the latter, exhaling smoke into his mouth, you might feel your heart skip a beat.

Tender in its sympathy, bracing in its judgment, Beanpole unfolds with an astounding visual fluency and emotional intensity: Life and death tangle, embrace, square off and slug it out. That this indelible dreamscape was realized by such a young filmmaker (Balagov is in his 20s; this is his second feature), with two first-time performers at its center, makes it all the more remarkable.

— Sheri Linden