A record 83 nations entered films in the Foreign Language category this year. I saw all 83 entries. Before proceeding to my comments about the five nominees and several non-nominees that particularly impressed me, I'd like to make a few general comments.
When I tell people that, over a two-month period, I watched films from 83 different countries, the most common reaction is... a blank stare. Some people can't sit through one subtitled film much less 83. Others had no idea that 83 different countries even existed, much less made movies. Most people don't even ask me what my favorites were. But I have to say that I had a wonderful time. Not only were most of the films at least "good", but even the bad ones usually provide an insight into what is going on in another part of the world.
Here are three lessons I learned from my cinematic world journey:
1. If you need to dispose of a dead body, don't dump it in a body of water because it is bound to resurface eventually (Chile--To Kill a Man and Ireland--The Gift). A better idea is to burn it. Hopefully I will never have to put this lesson to use, but still it's good to know, just in case.
2. Cell phones are everywhere, even if you have to walk around and wave the phone in the air to get reception. Desert dwellers use them (Mauritania--Timbuktu); people in remote forests use them (China--The Nightingale); and so do villagers socked in by snow in northern India by the Tibetan border (India--Liar's Dice). In the case of Liar's Dice, a cell phone leads to one of the most moving climaxes of the 83 entries.
3. In many cultures and in various eras, women haven't been allowed to marry for love. A few examples: marriage by kidnapping (Ethiopia--Difret), marriage to settle a tribal feud (Pakistan--Daughter), marriage to settle a debt (South Africa--Elelwani) and marriage to ensure financial security for a widow and her daughters (Germany--Beloved Sisters and Greece--Little England). In Gett from Israel a woman can't get a divorce unless her husband grants it. And worst of all, when your husband dies they burn you to death (Nepal--Jhola).
The 5 Nominees
Wild Tales (Relatos salvajes) (Argentina)
Of the 83 foreign language films I saw, Wild Tales is my favorite. It doesn't have the gravitas to win an Oscar, but it is greatly entertaining. It consists of six separate stories tied together by a theme: people losing control of their behavior and committing various levels of acts of violence. If this seems grim, there's a catch: Wild Tales is a comedy. It's not surprising that it earned audience awards at film festivals as far flung as Oslo, Sarajevo and São Paulo.
The pre-title sequence, Pasternak, begins with a model boarding a flight. She allows the music critic across the aisle to flirt with her and it turns out that they have something in common: they both did emotional harm to a fellow named Gabriel Pasternak. In fact, as they soon discover, so did everyone else on the plane. At the showing I attended, the conclusion of the episode had the audience laughing and applauding, which is pretty impressive for a pre-title sequence.
Next up is The Rats, in which a waitress in a diner recognizes the man who sits down at one of her tables as the sleazy loan shark who drove her father to suicide and ruined her family. He does not recognize her. What to do? While the waitress stresses over this dilemma, the cook, when she hears the story, has her own solution, adding something extra to the man's food order.
Road to Hell is a road rage conflict between a rich guy and a redneck on a country road that escalates outrageously.
The last three episodes are less murderous. In Bombita, Ricardo Darin plays a demolition engineer who misses his son's birthday party because his car is towed from a spot that does not display any visible warning that it is a tow-away zone. Plunged into a world of heartless bureaucracy, he becomes increasingly outraged until he feels compelled to use his job expertise to commit a criminal act.
In The Bill, a rich kid under the influence is involved in a hit-and-run accident in which he kills a pregnant woman and her unborn child. His father, Mauricio, calls in the family lawyer. They try to come up with a plan that will save the family from scandal. The police will soon arrive and identify the guilty car, but is it possible to shield the son from being arrested? Then Mauricio looks out the window and sees the family groundskeeper...and makes him an offer he almost can't refuse.
The final episode, 'Til Death Do Us Part, takes place at an extravagant Jewish wedding. Shortly after the post-ceremony festivities kick off, the bride, played by Erica Rivas (who won both the best actress and best supporting actress categories at last year's Argentinian Academy Awards), picks up her groom's cell phone and discovers that he has been having an affair with a beautiful woman sitting at one of the other tables. To say that the bride reacts strongly to this discovery would be putting it mildly, and the evening descends into increasingly scandalous and chaotic behavior.
According to an early version of the script (thank you Sony hackers), it would appear that the original intention was to end the film with Bombita, which would have been a wiser decision. No matter. The film's a winner in any order.
Leviathan (Leviafan) (Russia)
Leviathan won the Golden Globe award for Best Foreign Language Film. Keep in mind that for the last four years, the Golden Globe foreign film winner has gone on to win the Academy Award. Leviathan also gained the best screenplay award at the Cannes Film Festival.
This is a bleak and disheartening story about a man for whom everything seems to be going wrong. What has attracted so much attention to the film is its startling portrayal of the government and the church as corrupt institutions. The villain, the local mayor, even has a framed photo of Vladimir Putin hanging over his desk.
Nikolai, a mechanic whose first wife died, lives in a coastal town in the far northwest of Russia with his young second wife and his teenage son from his first marriage. He is overwhelmed by the mayor's attempts to kick him out of the waterfront home his family built and seize his land. He enlists the aid of an old Army buddy, Dmitri, who is now a big-shot lawyer in Moscow.
Dmitri is definitely on the case, bringing with him an incriminating dossier about the mayor. But then Nikolai catches his wife having sex with Dmitri. Toss in the fact that Nikolai's son hates him for marrying the young second wife and, as I said, everything seems to be going wrong. Except that it gets even worse.
Director Andrey Zvyagintsev has said that although the title, Leviathan, has multiple meanings, it does refer to Thomas Hobbes' 17th century work of the same name. A couple quotes from Hobbes and you get the idea: in "a time of war...every man is enemy to every man....In such condition...worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."
There's a cynical joke among foreign film aficionados that if Leviathan wins the Academy Award, Vladimir Putin will praise it as proof that freedom of speech is alive and well in Russia, but if it loses, director Zvyagintsev might start making films abroad.
Anna is an 18-year-old orphan in 1962 Poland who has grown up in a convent and is now ready to take her vows and become a nun. But first she is required to visit her only surviving relative, an aunt named Wanda whom she has never met. Wanda wastes little time in informing Anna of a secret: Anna is Jewish and her real name is Ida [Ee-da] Lebenstein. Together they embark on a journey to try to determine how Ida's mother (Wanda's sister) and father died. If Ida has seen too little of the world, Wanda has seen too much. A judge, she has committed herself to enforcing the Communist Party line, but she also drinks hard and sleeps around.
There is an unusual story regarding how director Pawel Pawlikowski came to cast Agata Trzebuchowka as Ida, considering that Trzebuchowka had no acting experience, nor even any acting ambitions. A friend of Pawlikowski's spotted Trzebuchowka sitting in a Warsaw café and thought she had the look that Pawlikowski was searching for. So she secretly took a photo of the young woman with her iPhone and sent it to the director, who later convinced Trzebuchowka to take the role. Good call.
Maybe I've seen too many movies, or maybe it's because I was born in Hollywood, but it wasn't hard to figure out early on what was going to happen to Ida. Still, there are enough surprises in the plot to make up for it.
In addition to its nomination in this category, Ida was also rewarded with a nomination for the black and white cinematography of Lukasz Zal and Ryszard Lenczewski.
Although the film was directed by Abderrahmane Sissako of Mauritania, it takes place in neighboring Mali, where, in real life, Islamist fundamentalists took over the ancient city of Timbuktu (population: 55,000) in April 2012 and imposed harsh sharia law. In the film Timbuktu, the Islamist leaders are foreigners, Arabs who don't even speak the local languages. They ban smoking (except for the leader himself, who does so in secret) and music. Even singing songs in praise of Allah is subject to punishment of 80 lashes. Women must wear gloves, not the easiest thing in the world if your job is selling fish at the market. They also ban soccer, which leads to one amazingly poetic scene. Since balls are forbidden, the young men and their coach go out onto the field and pantomime a match. They run, pass, dive, make slide tackles...all without a ball. But even that is too much. When a jeepload of Islamist enforcers suddenly appear, the players stop their faux game and pretend to do calisthenics.
We hear a lot about Islamist extremism, but don't often get to see how it disrupts the daily life of normal Muslims, so Timbuktu provides a welcome service. For the record, French and Malian troops retook the city of Timbuktu after nine months.
Tangerines (Mandariinid) (Estonia)
Tangerines is an effective anti-war film. It deals with a specific conflict, but its message is universal. A little background: the Abkhaz are a relatively small minority who, upon the collapse of the Soviet Union, found themselves part of independent Georgia, which led to a movement among Abkhazians to form an independent nation of their own. Between August 1992 and September 1993, a war was fought between the Georgian army on one side and Abkhaz separatists on the other. The Russian government of Boris Yeltsin leaped at the opportunity to get involved on the side of the Abkhazians and even hired mercenaries to fight with them.
Tangerines takes place in a corner of Abkhazia that was inhabited by an ethnic Estonian minority. As the war engulfs their region, the Estonians flee to Estonia...except for two older men, Ivo and Margus, who insist on staying behind to harvest the tangerine crop. But one day the war comes to them. When they find injured combatants, one from each side, Ivo takes them both in while they recuperate from their injuries. One is an aspiring Georgian actor, a Christian, and the other is a Chechen mercenary, a Muslim. Ivo gets them to promise that they won't try to kill each other inside his house.
Gradually the two enemies come together to help Ivo and Margus, who are, after all, caught in someone else's war...as are so many of war's victims in real life.
8 Non-Nominees of Note
Two Days, One Night (Deux jours, une nuit) (Belgium)
Directed by film festival favorites Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Two Days, One Night stars Oscar winner Marion Cotillard (La vie en Rose) as Sandra, who is just about to return to work at a solar panel company after taking a leave of absence for depression when she learns that her co-workers have voted for her to be fired in exchange for each of them receiving a bonus of 1,000 Euros.
Encouraged by her husband and her best friend, she gets her supervisor to agree to conduct a revote when everyone returns to work on Monday. She then spends the weekend visiting each of her 16 co-workers to try to convince them to save her job by giving up their bonuses. Some are hostile to her, some are completely supportive, some need the bonus money so badly that Sandra doesn't hold it against them, and some of them just like the idea of gaining some extra money even if they don't really need it.
I found Two Days, One Night to be a wonderful portrayal of a cross-section of normal working people. And Cotillard is so good, so believable, that one of my viewing companions didn't even realize it was Best Actress Oscar winner Marion Cotillard playing Sandra until the credits rolled at the end. In fact, even though the film didn't even make the Foreign Language short list, Cotillard gained a Best Actress nomination this year.
Force Majeure (Turist) (Sweden)
I like a serious story that is spiced with comic relief, and Force Majeure fits the bill. Tomas and Ebba and their two children are a good-looking, clean-cut family enjoying a ski vacation in the French Alps. Everything is just as it should be...until an unexpected incident turns their lives upside-down. As they are enjoying a meal at their hotel's outdoor terrace restaurant, the resort's daily controlled avalanche, used to clear the pistes, appears to get out-of-hand, and it looks like the avalanche will engulf the terrace. Tomas picks up his cell phone and runs, leaving Ebba to protect the kids. The snow stops before it does any damage, and Tomas returns as if nothing has happened. But Ebba is shaken. Eventually she confronts her husband with his abandonment of his family. Tomas is in denial, but gradually he realizes that he really did do something selfish and maybe even cowardly.
Enter another Swedish couple, bearded Mats and much younger Fanni. They are borderline hippies who have come to the resort for sex, snuggling and skiing. When Ebba chooses them to be the audience for her confrontation with Tomas, Mats tries to be an emotional mediator, while becoming agitated himself. "No wonder your wife left you," says Fanni with a smile.
Consciously and unconsciously, Ebba and Tomas try to bring back their family harmony before it is time to leave the resort.
In case you're curious, but didn't want to ask, "force majeure" refers to "an event or effect that cannot be reasonably anticipated or controlled."
The Dark Valley (Das finstere Tal) (Austria)
The Dark Valley is the best Austrian western I have ever seen, although it's true that I can't think of any other Austrian westerns. Sam Riley (Control, 13, On the Road) stars as Grieder, a stranger who arrives on horseback in a remote Alpine mountain village just as winter is about to set in. The village is run by Old Man Brenner and his disgustingly mean sons. Grieder claims he has come to take photographs, but there's never any question that he has a hidden agenda...we just don't know what it is. The film follows all the classic western conventions. The bad guys are 100% bad and the oppressed villagers are 100% good.
Little England (Mikra Anglia) (Greece)
By coincidence, both Germany and Greece entered films about two sisters in love with the same man. And in both films their mother forces one of the sisters to marry a rich man she isn't attracted to because the mother wants to achieve financial security for the family. The German film, Beloved Sisters, has received most of the attention, partly because it is inspired by the true story of poet-playwright Friedrich Schiller and his relationship with the Lengefeld sisters, one of whom he married and one of whom wrote the first biography of Schiller.
However it is the Greek film, Little England, which I found more interesting. It's based on a novel, The Jasmine Isle, by Ioanna Karystiani and directed by her husband, Pantelis Voulgaris.
Older sister Orsa is in love with sailor Spyros and he with her. Before he goes off to sea, which almost all men in this community on the island of Andros do, they secretly pledge to marry one day. But Orsa's mother, Mina, considers Spyros to be a bad catch because he is only a second mate with no prospects of becoming a captain. So she bullies Orsa into marrying a real captain: handsome, wealthy, nice-enough but uninteresting Nikos. When Spyros returns home, it turns out that he has been made a captain and will be in charge of his own ship. So Mina arranges for him to marry Orsa's younger sister, vivacious Moscha. The catch is that Moscha has no idea that Orsa and Spyros were in love and had pledged marriage. When you see the way Orsa and Spyros still look at each other, you know that time has not diluted their old attraction.
Mina makes the situation even worse for Orsa by installing the two couples in a duplex so that Orsa has to repeatedly listen to her sister enjoying sex with the man she loves.
The title refers to the nickname for Andros as a result of its ties to and admiration for the English shipping industry.
Sea Fog (Haemoo) (South Korea)
Life is not going well for Captain Kang. He returns from a fishing trip to discover his wife in bed with another man. But this doesn't even faze him because it's the least of his troubles. The catch was not good and his aged ship needs repair. In desperation, he agrees to smuggle illegal immigrants, ethnic Koreans from China--but he doesn't tell his crew members until they're already out to sea. The old crew members are as down on their luck as Kang is, but there is one newcomer, Dong-sik, played by pop star Park Yu-chun. Ominously, when the immigrants are transferred from another boat, it is in the midst of a storm. Dong-sik saves a young woman who falls in the water...and falls in love with her, hiding her in the engine room to avoid the cold on deck. Then the whole enterprise goes terribly, terribly wrong.
Haemoo is based on a play that in turn was based on a shocking real incident. It's a grim thriller that goes from bad to worse for the characters and then worse again.
Fourteen-year-old Hirut is walking home from school when she is chased down and surrounded by men on horseback, who kidnap her so that one of them can rape her and marry her, marriage by kidnapping being a traditional custom. The next morning Hirut discovers that the door to the building in which she is being held is open and that her attacker has left his shotgun unattended. She escapes and, when the men chase her down again, she shoots and kills the man who claimed her, whereupon she is charged with murder. Hours away in the capital of Addis Ababa, Meaza, co-founder of the Andinet Women Lawyers Association, hears about Hirut's case on the radio and becomes determined to help her.
Difret won audience awards at the Berlin, Amsterdam, Montréal and Sundance film festivals. Director Zeresenay Berhane Mehari graduated from USC film school and raised the money to get the project going through Kickstarter. Shortly before it played at Sundance, Angelina Jolie signed on as executive producer.
Hirut and Meaza are real people, and the case became a major cause célèbre in Ethiopia, leading, in 1996, to the outlawing of marriage by abduction, although I suspect it hasn't died away completely.
The title, Difret, is an Amharic word that apparently has multiple meanings, including "to dare" and "the act of being raped."
Liar's Dice (India)
Kamala lives in a snow-covered village on the border with Tibet. Her husband went off to the big city to make money at a construction job, but she hasn't heard from him in five months. She keeps trying to call his cell phone, but never gets an answer. Everyone tells her to forget about it; he's probably found another woman. But Kamala doesn't believe them and is afraid something has happened to him, so she sets off to find him, accompanied by her adorable little daughter, Manya, and Manya's pet goat.
They soon encounter a mysterious and unlikable traveler named Nawazuddin, who is clearly escaping something, although it is not immediately clear what. Nawazuddin agrees to help Kamala, but only if she pays him. The journey takes them first to Simla, where the people who hired Kamala's husband explain that he was actually sent to work in Delhi.
As they pass from the spectacular mountain scenery of Himachal Pradesh to the gritty, menacing streets of Delhi, Kamala keeps trying to call her husband, but without success. I wish I could find a cell phone that keeps its charge as long as Kamala's. Maybe the same faith and determination that keeps her going does the same for her phone.
Because of Kamala's vulnerability as a woman traveling alone with an innocent little girl and a goat, there is an unsettling tension throughout the film. I wasn't sure if this was really one of my favorites...until the sudden dramatic climax, which, as I mentioned in my introduction, centers on Kamala's cell phone.
1001 Grams (1001 Gram) Norway
Marie is a scientist who works at the Norwegian Bureau of Weights and Measures, where her father is the director. When her father falls ill, she is chosen to bear the great responsibility of hand-carrying an object known as the Norwegian National Kilo to Paris for a seminar at the International Bureau of Weights and Measures, where a couple dozen representatives of various countries come to have their national kilos weighed against "the mother of all kilograms" and to discuss "weighty" matters.
Marie's well-controlled life is unraveling because her marriage has fallen apart and her beloved father is dying. While in Paris she meets Pi, a scientist who has chosen to work as a gardener instead and to fill his free time recording bird sounds. Inevitably the two fall in love.
1001 Grams has been criticized for being needlessly slow-paced and I get it. The pace is not exactly glacial, but more like a post-global warming version of glacial. But it's only 93 minutes long. I liked the film's dry humor, and I particularly liked the ending, wherein Marie and Pi apply their measurement expertise to lovemaking.
There were also two noteworthy gay-themed films.
The Way He Looks (Hoje Eu Quero Voltar Sozinho) from Brazil has won at least seven audience awards at gay and lesbian film festivals and it's easy to see why. The protagonists are two charming high school boys, one blind and one a new kid, who discover they are gay and fall in love.
The Circle (Der Kreis) from Switzerland portrays the underground homosexual scene in Zurich in the 1950s, which is increasingly under siege. It centers on the love affair between teacher Ernst Ostertag and transvestite performer Robi Rapp. Ernst and Robi are real people, and the dramatic scenes are interspersed with interviews with present-day Ernst and Robi, so the film is actually a hybrid drama and documentary. In fact, when Switzerland legalized same-sex partnerships, Ernst and Robi, by then 73 years old, were given the honor of being the first couple to register.