Academy Awards 2014: Foreign Language Films

A record 75 countries entered the foreign language category this year, and a record 16 submitted films directed by women. (A 76th country, Pakistan, was disqualified for failing to submit a subtitled print of its entry.) I saw 70 of the 75 entries. Here are my comments on the five nominees, as well some non-nominees that I consider noteworthy.

The Hunt (Jagten) (Denmark)

This is the third time that actor Mads Mikkelsen has starred in a film that earned an Academy Award Foreign Language nomination. The previous two were After the Wedding (2006) and The Royal Affair (2012). In The Hunt, he plays Lucas, a beloved kindergarten assistant whose life is turned upside-down when he is falsely accused of exposing his penis to one of his students, his best friend's daughter. The way his close-knit community, including his friends and colleagues, turn against him is chilling. Actual sexual abuse of children is so appalling that the cinema industry has a hard time dealing with it. But false accusations can be tragic as well. Watching The Hunt, I could not help but recall the McMartin Preschool debacle, at the time the longest criminal trial in U.S. history and one that cost taxpayers $15 million without a single conviction. In The Hunt, as in the McMartin case, once a child makes an accusation, even a false one, there appears to be no turning back. Mikkelsen, who is probably best known to American audiences as the villain in the 2006 remake of Casino Royale, gives a powerful performance as he goes from incredulity to outrage.

The Great Beauty (La grande bellezza) (Italy)

An homage to Federico Fellini's La Dolce Vita, The Great Beauty begins with a huge celebration of the 65th birthday of Jep Gambardella (played by the wonderfully expressive Toni Servillo). Long ago, Gambardella wrote an acclaimed novella that earned him a place in Rome's heavy-partying artistic high society. His dream was not to be a great novelist, but rather to conquer that society so completely that a party is considered a failure if he doesn't attend. Having accomplished his goal, he is now facing the sad reality that maybe that wasn't such a worthwhile goal after all. The Great Beauty is long (142 minutes), but filled with a range of eccentric, charming, ridiculous, extreme and memorable characters.

The Missing Picture (L'image manquante) (Cambodia)

Most Americans know about the horrors of the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia from the Academy Award-winning film The Killing Fields (1984). I visited Cambodia in 1988, nine years after the Khmer Rouge were driven from power after killing an estimated 1,700,000 people in just four years. As it happened, bootleg VHS copies of The Killing Fields were circulating while I was there. I asked my guide what she thought about the film. She replied, "It didn't show how bad things really were." Since I had been appalled by the atrocities portrayed in The Killing Fields, it was hard for me to comprehend what she was implying.

The Missing Picture is a documentary directed by Rithy Panh, who was 13 years old when the Khmer Rouge took power and drove him and his family out of the capital of Phnom Penh and into labor camps in the countryside. Both of his parents died, as did his siblings. Panh escaped, eventually making his way to Paris, where he became a filmmaker. The Missing Picture mixes archival footage with static clay figures to tell the moving story of the tragedy that Panh and his family endured.

I don't mean in any way to denigrate The Missing Picture, and I hope that as many people as possible see it, but last year Cambodia entered a film, Lost Loves, that covered the same ground and, using live actors, was more effective. Written by Kauv Southeary and her husband, Chhay Bora, it centers on daily life under the Khmer Rouge from the point-of-view of Southeary's mother, whose father, husband and four of her children died during that same four-year nightmare. The Academy paid no attention whatsoever to Lost Loves, but gave a nomination to The Missing Picture. Go figure.

Omar (Palestine)

Directed by Hany Abu-Assad, whose 2005 film Paradise Now was also nominated for an Academy Award, Omar deals with the difficult subject of a Palestinian who, after he and two friends kill an Israeli soldier, is tortured and agrees to work as an informant for the Israelis. Omar is a complicated tale--even the love story comes with twists and betrayal--and it is not for viewers who want their good guys and bad guys served up in clear and easy terms.

Coincidentally, this year's entry from Israel, Bethlehem, is also about a Palestinian who agrees to serve as an informant. Frankly, I found Bethlehem a more interesting film because it reveals more complex issues among both the Palestinians and the Israelis. Perhaps that's because the script was co-written by a Jewish former military intelligence officer, Yuval Adler, and a Muslim journalist, Ali Waked.

The Broken Circle Breakdown (Belgium)

Good American bluegrass music, two tragic deaths and an anti-George W. Bush message...was there ever any doubt that The Broken Circle Breakdown would earn an Academy Award nomination?

Didier, the leader of a Belgian bluegrass band, and Elise, who runs a tattoo parlor and also sings, fall in love and have a daughter who contracts cancer and dies at the age of six. Not surprisingly, this puts a strain on their marriage. Because the story is told in non-linear fashion, the ugly scenes that follow are interspersed with scenes of love and passion. Veerle Baetens and Johan Heldenbergh (who also co-wrote the play upon which the movie is based) are nice to watch and, if you like bluegrass, the music is a pleasure. However I found the flashing around among different timeframes more jarring than illuminating and the life decisions made by the two protagonists unconvincing. Viewers who thrive on tragic love stories might feel differently.

Many of the 70 non-nominees are worthy of recommendation. Here are a few of my favorites.

Metro Manila (United Kingdom)

Although Metro Manila was the British entry, it takes place in the Philippines and the dialogue is in Tagalog. It fits into a common genre in foreign language films: a man/woman/family from the country are forced to seek work in the city and are exploited and lose all their money. That's exactly what happens in Metro Manila, but this time there are some intriguing plot twists. Forced by poverty to move to Manila, Oscar, Mae and their children end up in the slums, desperate for money just to pay for food. From the film's trailer you'd think it was about Mae's descent into being a sex worker. It's true that she takes degrading work in a hostess bar, but the plot really revolves around Oscar. An innocent in a sea of slime, he benefits from his military background to land a good job as a guard for an armored truck company. However, in Manila, this is a really dangerous job. Fortunately a veteran guard, Ong, takes Oscar under his wing and teaches him the ropes and even lets him and his family move into an apartment he owns. But there's a catch. At first it seems that the tradeoff is just keeping silent about Ong's infidelities, but soon Ong lures Oscar into activity that is way more sinister and dangerous.

Director Sean Ellis was nominated in the Live Action Short category in 2006 for Cashback.

The Old Man (Shal) (Kazakhstan)

Director Ermek Tursunov's Kelin made my list of notable non-nominees in 2010. Set in about 200 A.D., it was a rare Foreign Language entry with no subtitles. That's because the characters communicated in grunts and gestures instead of with words. For the The Old Man, Tursunov chooses a modern tale, although it takes place in a decidedly primitive setting. It is inspired by--but not based on--Ernest Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea." Kasym is an elderly sheepherder who, despite his belief in traditional values, is an obsessive soccer fan who names his sheep after famous South American players. He is also something of a senior delinquent. He lives with his patient widowed daughter-in-law and his grandson, who thinks soccer is stupid, preferring instead to play handheld video games. When some arrogant wolf hunters ask Kasym where they can find their intended prey, he tells them, but warns that this is not a good time to go wolf hunting because the mothers are protecting their young.

A neighbor who is expecting visiting relatives asks Kasym to take his sheep herd with him when he takes his own sheep out to winter pasture. Kasym agrees, but when a bad storm sets in, he becomes lost. Thus begins a riveting battle for survival in which Kasym must protect his charges from the elements and from wolves. And then the situation turns even worse, as the mother wolf decides to go after more than just sheep.

White Lies (Tuakiri Huna) (New Zealand)

Like Whale Rider, which earned an unlikely best actress nomination in 2004, White Lies is based on a story by Maori novelist Witi Ihimaera. In fact, Mexican director Dana Rotberg has said that she moved to New Zealand after seeing Whale Rider. White Lies is set in a 1920s rural New Zealand drenched in racism. Maori singer Whirimako Black, in a strong performance, plays medicine woman Paraiti, who, during a visit to town, is approached by a haughty Maori maid, Maraea, who works for a rich white family. It seems that her mistress, the even haughtier Rebecca, has committed the indiscretion of getting herself pregnant while her husband is away, and she needs to get rid of the baby before her husband returns. The tense emotional relationships that develop amongst these three women are gripping enough, but there are late twists that take the story to a different dimension. For those who have seen White Lies, I'll just say that the ending would have been more effective if Rebecca had made a different decision at the end.

Horses of God (Les chevaux de Dieu) (Morocco)

The aforementioned Omar and Bethlehem have garnered a lot of attention and awards for their coverage of the issue of Middle East terrorism, but the terrorism-related film that stuck with me the most was Horses of God. On May 16, 2003, fourteen suicide bombers in Casablanca staged synchronized attacks on two restaurants, a hotel, a Jewish community center and other sites, killing 33 victims and injuring more than 100. The incident stunned the nation of Morocco, which had been relatively immune from violent religious extremism. The expected government crackdown ensued, but one uncomfortable detail emerged...all of the bombers were young men who came from the same poor, dead-end neighborhood on the outskirts of the city.

Horses of God, based on a novel by Mahi Binebine, records the transformation of two brothers and their friends from teenagers with little interest in either religion of politics to terrorists willing to sacrifice their own lives in order to kill innocent civilians. The turning point comes when older brother Hamid, a notorious troublemaker, returns from prison as a convert to Islam. His imam and the leaders of his local cell aren't wild rabble-rousers, but calm and friendly--fanatics with smiles. As the others struggle make a living, the terrorists' appeal becomes more seductive.

An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker (Epizoda u zivotu beraca zeljeza) (Bosnia and Herzegovina)

Of the 70 Foreign Language entries I saw this year, a depressing number featured protagonists who were not in the least bit sympathetic. In this context, An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker was a refreshing exception. Nazif, his partner Senada and their two daughters are Roma (Gypsies) who live in a poor, remote community. When Senada is cold, Nazif walks into the forest and cuts down a tree. When they need money for food, he goes to the local dump and salvages iron to be sold nearby. They are helped at every turn by friendly relatives and neighbors. But one day, Senada becomes really ill. At the distant hospital, they learn that she has miscarried, but that the fetus is stuck inside her and she needs an emergency operation. However, despite the fact that Nazif is a war veteran whose brother was killed in the Balkan War, neither he nor Senada has a national health insurance card, and there is no way they can come up with the money to pay for the operation without insurance.

An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker has a significant back story. Despite its tiny ($40,000) budget, it is directed by a major director, Danis Tanović, who won the Academy Award in 2002 for No Man's Land. Tanović read about Nazif and Senada in a newspaper and was outraged by the poor way they were treated by the government medical system. So he contacted the couple and asked them to recreate their own story. Thus, as it turns out, An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker is actually a reconstructed documentary starring all of the real people involved in the near-tragedy.

Class Enemy (Razredni sovrazn) (Slovenia)

When their student-friendly high school teacher leaves on maternity leave, a class of seniors finds themselves stuck with a cold, authoritarian replacement, Robert, who insists that they stand when he enters the room and speaks to them only in German. One student, Sabina, is a shy pianist. Robert critiques her playing...and she goes home and commits suicide without leaving a note. Her classmates, who paid little attention to Sabina before her death, now rally around her memory, leading to a rebellion against Robert--the Class Enemy--and the school administrators. But this isn't a simple story of good guys against bad guys. The students are far from a united front and their individual attitudes shift as they their rebellion progresses. Eventually we even see Robert's point-of-view.

Of Horses and Men (Hross í os) (Iceland)

Of Horses and Men is what's known as "a hoot." Set in a remote corner of Iceland, which is pretty remote to begin with, it strings together six episodes in the life of a community centered on horses. Setting the tone for the film, we begin with Kolbeinn (played by Ingvar Sigurðsson, the star of Jar City), the local dignified middle-aged heartthrob, as he takes his mare through its high-stepping Icelandic paces while everyone watches with binoculars. But then the stallion of his neighbor, Solveig (Charlotte Boving), who lusts after Kolbeinn, breaks loose and humps Kolbeinn's mare. Kolbeinn has no choice but to stay on board during the entire act. Kolbeinn and Solveig respond to this indignity by killing their respective horses.

Next up is Vernhardur (Steinn Armann Magnusson), who sees a Russian trawler offshore. All he can think of is "vodka." Mounting his horse, he rides into the ocean until he reaches the ship, calling out for alcohol. The alarmed Russians lower him a case of alcohol, but warn him that it is pure alcohol, not for drinking. Vernhardur ignores their warning and suffers the consequences...but at least he has a nice funeral.

Icelandic humor is dry and unusual, but in this case, it worked for me.