Academy Awards 2016--Foreign Language Films

Eighty nations entered films in the Academy Awards Foreign Language category this year. I saw 75 of the 80 films. It was a good year for South America, a strong year for Europe and a weak year for Asia.

There was one recurrent theme that caught my attention. Many of the films include male characters who try to dominate and control their wives, their sisters and/or their children. I counted 19 different films with an overbearing and manipulative male character who bullies his family. There were also three films with equally overbearing and manipulative female characters, but 19 to 3 is not a close contest.

Of the 80 films, only nine were directed by women and another four were co-directed by women. However, one of these female directors, Deniz Gamze Ergüven, was honored with a nomination (for Mustang), which is more than can be said for any women feature film directors in the United States.

I did enjoy getting to question many of the filmmakers after the screenings. I learned that the tribulations of finding funding to make films are universal and that this often takes longer than writing, shooting and editing the film itself.

Here are my comments on the five nominees and several non-nominees that deserve more attention.

The 5 Nominees

Son of Saul (Saul fia) (Hungary)
The Academy is notoriously friendly to Holocaust-related films, giving the Best Picture award to Schindler's List in 1994 and the Foreign Language award to Life is Beautiful in 1999, The Counterfeiters in 2008 and Ida in 2015. You wouldn't think the Academy members would honor a holocaust film two years in a row, but Son of Saul is as powerful as they come.

Saul Ausländer is a prisoner at the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in 1944. The Nazis have allowed Saul to be a member of the Sonderkommandos, a work group that allows Jews to extend their lives for a few months by helping the Germans with the task of killing other Jews and disposing of their bodies. Saul, who is understandably deranged, becomes convinced that a young boy, who temporarily survived gassing, is his son, and Saul wants him to have a formal Jewish burial, overseen by a rabbi. Although this is the plot of the film, what makes Son of Saul so effective is that, in matter-of-fact yet gruesome detail, it takes us through the entire Nazi death camp "kill chain," beginning with the victims' arrival at Auschwitz, their disrobing, their execution, the confiscation and "recycling" of their possessions, the burning of their bodies and the dumping of their ashes in a river. Meanwhile, many of the Sonderkommandos, knowing they will die soon, plot an uprising and escape and also photograph the horrors they are part of because otherwise no one would believe what the Nazis have done.

Some friends of mine have absolutely refused to see Son of Saul because the subject matter is so upsetting. I accept this, but if you want to better understand the reality of the Holocaust, I urge you to watch this film.

A War (Krigen) (Denmark)
Excuse me for repeating a point I have made before, but a common aspect of modern warfare is that no matter how much soldiers who go to war are motivated by patriotism, once the fighting starts, idealism fades and their main concern is protecting their buddies.

Fourteen years into the U.S.-led War in Afghanistan, two-thirds of the coalition soldiers who have died have been Americans. However, the country that has suffered the most deaths per capita is...Denmark.

In A War, Claus Pedersen (Pilou Asbaek), who has left a wife and three children back at home, commands a company of Danish soldiers in Afghanistan. He is just the sort of leader a soldier would want. He is tactically smart, but he is also sincerely concerned about the safely and emotional state of the men he commands. Not only that, but instead of staying at base while his troops go out in harm's way, he goes with them.

However Pedersen makes two critical bad decisions. When the Taliban threaten to kill an Afghan family who cooperated with the Danes, the family seeks refuge at the Danish base. But Pedersen, fearing that their presence will endanger his men, turns them away...and the Taliban massacre the entire family. Then, while out on patrol, Pedersen and his troops come under heavy fire. He calls in air strikes, which put an end to the attack on his men. But it turns out that the air strikes killed eleven civilians, including eight children. Incidents such as this don't garner much attention in the United States, but in Denmark this is considered a war crime, and Pedersen is sent home to stand trial.

The evidence is heavily against Pedersen, but if he can prove that he personally saw an enemy soldier firing from the compound that he ordered to be bombed (he didn't), he will be acquitted.

One sidelight: Pilou Asbaek, the star of A War, has been signed to appear as Euron Greyjoy in season 6 of "Game of Thrones."

Mustang (France)
Although Mustang represents France, it was filmed in Turkish and shot entirely in Turkey. The director, Deniz Gamze Ergüve, was born in Turkey, but has spent most of her life in France. The crew was overwhelmingly French.

Five orphaned sisters are being raised by their grandmother and overseen by their uncle in a village on the Black Sea. The girls are bursting with youthful energy and independence. However these are not qualities that females are supposed to have in this rigid, conservative society. When it becomes clear that the girls are becoming interested in boys and vice-versa, their guardians take action, locking them in their house, taking away their cell phones and makeup and putting bars on the windows. Grandma and Uncle turn their house into a "wife factory," bringing in various aunts to teach the girls womanly skills and a succession of marriage-ready men. The eldest sister gets to marry her actual boyfriend, but the prospects turn darker and darker for the other sisters.

It is a grim reality that the village elders force upon the sisters, but there is one comic interlude. The girls escape to attend a soccer match with an all-female audience, but, like Laurel and Hardy in Sons of the Desert, they are caught on camera. Fortunately, back home, one of the aunties knocks out the village electricity before the men recognize the girls.

Theeb (Jordan)
I know that some supporters of Theeb don't want to acknowledge this, but it's really an Arabic western. The soundtrack by British composer Jerry Lane even has tones reminiscent of Ennio Morricone's score of Once Upon a Time in the West.

Set during World War I, the story focuses on two recently orphaned Bedouin brothers from a family that earns its living as pilgrim guides. Now that their father has died, older brother Hussein is teaching younger brother Theeb ("Wolf") how to survive in the desert. One night, an Arab guide appears with a British soldier. They're on their way to railroad tracks controlled by Ottoman troops--presumably to blow them up-- and they need help finding the nearest well on their way. Hussein agrees to serve as their guide. Theeb is ordered to stay behind because the route is home to bandits, but he follows the others and they are forced to accept his presence.

Sure enough, they are ambushed and, after their two companions are killed, the two brothers hide in the hills. But Hussein is also killed, and Theeb finds himself stuck with the badly injured bandit who killed his brother.

Director Naji Abu Nowar chose non-professional Jordanian locals to fill most of the roles. This technique was also used in Mustang, as well as in Guatemala's entry, Ixcanul, Venezuela's entry, Gone with the River, and Turkey's entry, Sivas, among others.

Embrace of the Serpent
(El abrazo de la serpiente) (Colombia)
Shot in beautiful black-and-white, Embrace of the Serpent is a fictionalized account of the colonial destruction of Amazonian tribes as seen through the eyes of Karamakate, a shaman who believes the rest of his people have been killed by white invaders, and two explorer-scientists, German Theo and American Evan, who visit the jungle roughly thirty years apart, both in search of a rare healing flower. The story is inspired by the diaries of ethnologist Theodor Koch-Grunberg, who made two extended expeditions into the Amazon basin during the first two decades of the twentieth century, and Richard Evans Schultes, a pioneer of ethnobotany and the study of psychoactive plants, who went there during World War II. A fourth major character, Manduca, who serves as Theo's guide, represents those native people who believe that not all whites are evil.

The worst culprits in this tragic history are the rubber industrialists who enslaved the locals they did not kill, and the Catholic Church, whose more fanatic missionaries aggressively destroyed the native cultures in order to convert the tribal people to Christianity.

Non-Nominees of Note

The Brand New Testament (Le tout nouveau testament) (Belgium)
The premise of The Brand New Testament is that God is a mean-spirited jerk who spends most of his time sitting at his computer thinking of new ways to make people miserable (e.g., whichever line you choose to stand in, the others will move faster). God lives in Brussels with his intimidated wife, The Goddess, and their 10-year-old daughter, Ea. Their son, Jesus, is, of course, dead. However, as a small statue, he is still able to tell his sister how to escape their father by climbing through the washing machine and emerging into a laundromat in Brussels.

Before she leaves, Ea sneaks into God's office, hacks into his computer, and sends a text message to everyone on Earth telling them exactly when they will die. Accompanied by a homeless man who doesn't have a cell phone, Ea goes in search of six new disciples to add to Jesus' twelve. This plot line doesn't work so well, but the part about everyone learning about their death date does. What's the point of fighting in a war? What's the point of plugging away at a boring job or enduring an unsatisfying marriage?

When God chases Ea into the real world, The Goddess, while cleaning, inadvertently reboots her husband's computer...and the world changes again.

Home Care (Domácí péče) (Czech Republic)
For some strange and unknown reason, four different countries entered films this year that deal with women dying of cancer. Aida from Morocco is about a Jewish music teacher from Paris who returns to Morocco to inspire her childhood sweetheart, now a married architect, to rediscover his love of music. Go Away Mr. Tumor from China is a cloying portrayal of a bubbly 29-year-old who falls in love with her doctor and inspires him to be less severe and to enjoy the good aspects of life despite his immersion in the sad aspects.

More interesting is Our Everyday Life from Bosnia-Herzegovina. At first this film, directed by documentary maker Ines Tanović, appears to be another entry in the dysfunctional family genre. Father Muhamed is disgusted because he is being booted out as CEO of the company he created, and he takes out his dissatisfaction on his family members. His 40-year-old son, Saša, lives at home and appears to be a slacker. Daughter Seneda lives in Berlin, unmarried and pregnant. As the film opens, her biker boyfriend is about to leave on a road trip with his buddies. Mother Marija, a retired teacher, is the stable force in the family. When she is diagnosed with cancer, it turns out that the family isn't so dysfunctional after all--a nice twist to a tired genre.

And then there's Home Care, the most powerful of this women-with-terminal-cancer collection. Vlasta (Alena Mihulová) is a small-town nurse who devotes her life to visiting her elderly patients at their homes. She also takes care of her husband, alcoholic but upbeat Láda. And she wishes their daughter would get married and be less angry. But then Vlasta is diagnosed with cancer. Because the medical profession gives up on her, she sets aside her professional skepticism and turns to Hanáčková, the daughter of one of her patients, who believes that diseases are caused by emotional problems and can be ameliorated by concentrating on positive energy. Let's just say that this path takes an unexpected turn for which Vlasta is not prepared.

For the record, a fifth entry, Cloudy Times, the first ever from Paraguay, is a documentary about the filmmaker dealing with her mother's gradual descent towards a death caused by Parkinson's disease.

NN (Peru)
Between 1980 and 2000, Peru was beset by a horrible civil war that pitted Maoist guerrillas against government troops. Both sides engaged in appalling massacres and other war crimes. It is estimated that almost 70,000 Peruvians lost their lives. As is so often the case in warfare, most of the victims were not combatants, but civilians whose territory was fought over by both sides.

NN deals with a group of forensic investigators who exhume bodies from mass graves, reconstruct the skeletons and try to identify the victims and contact their families. The film is inspired by the work of the Peruvian Team of Forensic Anthropology, a real-life non-governmental organization.

The story opens with the team digging up a mass grave that is supposed to contain eight bodies, but actually contains nine. The ninth body is different from the others. Whereas the other victims were simply shot to death, this one was beaten and tortured first. In the pocket of a jacket found with the ninth body is a photo of a young woman.

Fidel, the doctor who heads the project, becomes obsessed with identifying this ninth victim. A woman shows up and correctly identifies the jacket as that of her missing husband, but the investigators point out that prisoners, when they realized that one of their comrades was about to be taken away to be tortured, would give him their heaviest clothes to soften the blows. So the connection between the jacket and the victim might not be direct.

As it happens, Peru was not the only country this year to enter a film about victims who disappeared during political conflict. Void, from Lebanon, deals with the same subject. Approximately 17,000 Lebanese are still missing from the fighting that occurred between 1975 and 1990. Void presents the stories of various women who, twenty years later, are still haunted by the disappearance of a loved one. There's a mother who lost her son, a daughter who lost her father, a wife who lost her husband and a wealthy woman who lost her lover. I don't often present SPOILER ALERTs, but here's one. At the end of the film we learn that all of these women are mourning the same man, who was, after all, a son, a father, a husband and a lover. Multiply this by 17,000 and you get the point of Void.

Both NN and Void are reminders that when we read that a war has claimed the lives of so many thousands of victims and another so many thousands of people were wounded, the number of people who suffer is actually much greater.

The Second Mother (Que Horas Ela Volta?) (Brazil)
In The Second Mother, Regina Casé, "The Brazilian Oprah," plays Val, a live-in housekeeper who has devoted her life to taking care of the three members of a wealthy family: bossy socialite mother Bárbara, kind but spiritually-lost inherited-wealth father Carlos and son Fabinho, who is spoiled but a nice guy who is studying for his university entrance exam. When Fabinho wants warmth and understanding, he turns not to his mother, but to Val.

Val has a daughter, Jéssica, who lives with her father and to whom Val sends money. Jéssica resents her mother's abandonment of her and hasn't seen her in ten years. But out of the blue, Jéssica announces that she is coming to town to study for the same entrance exam as Fabinho and could she please stay with Val for a few days until she finds a place of her own. Val is delighted, but after she arrives, Val is shocked that Jéssica does not respect the social divide between her employers and their maid. Jéssica quickly bonds with Fabinho and his friends, and Carlos takes a liking to her as well. These developments do not sit well with Bárbara, who forces Jéssica out of the house.

If this was a film made in the United States, Regina Casé would probably have earned a best actress nomination.

The Club (El Club) (Chile)
An allegory for the manner in which the Catholic Church deals with priests who have committed sexual abuses, The Club is not for the fainthearted. In a nondescript house in a sleepy beach town live four priests and a nun, Sister Monica, all of whom have committed horrible transgressions, such as pedophilia and selling babies, that would have landed them in prison were they not religious figures protected by the Church. The locals seem unaware of the real identity of the household members until the arrival of a fifth priest. A disturbed fisherman immediately recognizes this new priest as the man who abused him when he was a child and, standing outside the house, begins screaming the graphic details of what happened. The other priests urge the new arrival to go outside and deal with it, which he does by shooting himself to death.

This incident brings the arrival of another priest, Father García, a Jesuit, who has been sent to straighten out the situation with the possibility of closing the home. "You're one of those new priests," says Sister Monica warily. In case you're not up on Church politics, the current Pope Francis is the first Jesuit pope and he has presented as one of his goals cleaning up the priestly sexual abuse morass. But as The Club makes clear, this is easier said than done....and the plot turns ugly, bloody and gruesome.

Director Pablo Larraín was nominated three years ago for his considerably more lighthearted political satire No. And that's his wife, Antonia Zegers, playing Sister Monica.

The Clan (El Clan) Argentina
The Clan set box-office records in Argentina. It is based on the lives of the Puccio family, who engaged in kidnapping for ransom and murder during the early 1980s. What gripped the Argentinean public back then, and again thirty years later, was that the Puccios were, on the surface, a respectable family who lived in a wealthy neighborhood.

During the period of Argentina's brutal military dictatorship, the father, Arquimedes, belonged to the army's Intelligence Battalion 601, which was notorious for kidnapping and killing political dissidents. This period of Argentina's "Dirty War," has twice been the subject of films that won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film: The Official Story in 1986 and The Secret in Their Eyes in 2010.

When democracy returned to Argentina in 1983, Arquimedes Puccio found himself without a secure job. But, hey, he had a skill--kidnapping and murdering people--so why not put it to good use to support his family during a time of economic uncertainty?

The Clan is told from the point of the Puccios, particularly Arquimedes and his eldest son, Alejandro, who was a star of Argentina's national rugby team. They began by kidnapping Ricardo Manoukian, a wealthy young man who was a teammate of Alejandro's. Manoukian's family paid a hefty ransom, but Arquimedes had him shot to death anyway and dumped his body in a river. The Puccios pulled off three more kidnappings for ransom before they were caught.

Guillermo Francells, who played the drunken assistant in The Secret in Their Eyes, gives a chilling, award-worthy performance as Arquimedes Puccio.

Flowers (Loreak) (Spain)
First of all, the characters in Flowers do not speak Spanish, but Basque. This is an unusual film in that it begins by telling one woman's story, but gradually transitions to a story about a different woman.

Ane is a secretary at a construction site. She is unhappily married and becomes depressed when she learns that she is reaching menopause unusually early. Without any warning, she begins receiving bouquets of flowers at her home. Her husband becomes jealous, but the truth is that Ane has no idea who is sending her the flowers. Then, one day, one of her co-workers, a crane operator named Beñat, dies in an automobile accident...and the flowers stop coming.

Moved, Ane starts placing flowers at the site of Beñat's accident. Now it's the turn of Beñat's angry-at-the-world widow, toll-booth worker Lourdes, to become jealous. Throw in Beñat's grieving mother and you end up with three women reacting to the death of a quiet, unassuming man.

Aferim! (Romania)
Aferim! is almost a black comedy except that the reality it portrays is a bit too awful to be funny. Shot in black-and-white, the film takes place in Wallachia in 1835 during a period in which Turks were in charge and Roma (Gypsies) were slaves.

Costandin, a boorish constable, accompanied by his teenaged son, Ionita, is sent by a rich landowner to track down and bring back an escaped slave, Carfin, who fled after having sex with the landowner's wife. It doesn't take them that long to capture Carfin, who then spends most of the journey back pleading to be released while slung over the back of a horse. Ionita idolizes his father, but less and less so after becoming exposed to his value system.

This is probably a period in Romanian history that many Romanians would rather not acknowledge, particularly as representatives of the Church follow a version of Christianity that would have made Jesus' hair stand on end. Indeed, one of Aferim!'s highlights is a rant in which a priest runs through a record-setting recitation of ethnic and religious slurs. I couldn't help but wonder how much of this appalling overt racism persists 180 years later.

The title, Aferim, is a Turkish-origin word meaning "Bravo," which the characters say to each other at inappropriate times.

Honey Night (Medena Nok) (Macedonia)
Honey Night gets my vote as this year's most overlooked small gem of a political satire. Nikola is a deputy minister in the national government. His wife, Ana, drinks to excess and embarrasses him at a big party in honor of Macedonia's independence. That same night is the couple's tenth wedding anniversary, a fact that Nikola has forgotten. But he does have what appears to be a legitimate excuse for being distracted: rumor has it that a purge of ministers is under way and he could be next. In a panic, he tries to flush down the toilet an incriminating report that he was involved in preparing. When he accomplishes nothing but clogging the toilet, he sets fire to the report, which makes matters even worse. As the night wears on, Nikola and Ana alternately bicker and close ranks as the rumors vary and as government thugs enter their home, presumably to install listening devices.

Unless it is unexpectedly picked up by Netflix, I imagine the chances of most readers getting a chance to see this film are slim. Still, just in case, I'll refrain from giving away the amusing surprise ending.

Honey Night is actually a remake of the Czech film The Ear, which was shot in 1970, but banned by the Communist authorities and not released until 1990.

Court (India)
I have a special liking for courtroom dramas and, especially, for ones that expose corrupt or incompetent systems. Examples include the former Academy Awards entry I Just Didn't Do It from Japan and the non-entry Mexican documentary Presumed Guilty. Court opens with the arrest of Narayan Kamble, a 65-year-old social activist singer/poet who is charged, absurdly, with being responsible for a sewage worker's death by inciting the man to commit suicide because of a song he wrote.

But what makes Court different is that the film is not about the activist singer, who soon fades into the background. Instead it zeroes in on the outdated and glacial pace of the Indian judicial system and on the personal lives of the human rights lawyer who takes his case, the prosecutor who believes that Kamble is a troublemaker who should be imprisoned just because, and finally, the judge. The defense attorney comes from a sophisticated intellectual family, while the prosecutor still has to go home after work and cook dinner for her family. The judge seems bored and lacking in creative thinking.

Run (Ivory Coast)
As a point of full disclosure, I saw Run in French without subtitles. Although I was able to follow most of the story, it's possible that I missed some of the nuances of the dialogue.

The film opens with the protagonist, Run, dressed as a madman, walking into a church and assassinating his nation's prime minister. He is able to escape to a hideout. In a series of flashbacks, we learn how Run developed from a simple village boy who was an apprentice to a rainmaker to a militant activist who resorts to assassination. Along the way, he works as an assistant to professional eater Gladys, a foreigner, who gives public exhibitions in which she stuffs herself with whatever food locals present her. Gladys is played by Reine Sali Coulibaly, who deserves some sort of supporting actress award for her delightful portrayal of this unusual character.

The Fencer (Miekkailija) (Finland)
As another point of full disclosure, after watching this film, I had drinks with its director, Klaus Härö, and its co-producer, Ivo Felt, so my objectivity might be a bit compromised.

World War II was a tragedy for millions of people of different nationalities, but Estonians were subjected to a particularly painful twist. In June 1940, Soviet troops occupied Estonia and eventually forced about 50,000 young Estonian men to join the Red Army. The following year, German troops drove out the Soviets, occupied Estonia themselves, and forced another 70,000 young Estonian men to fight for the Nazis. So, depending on what year you were born, if you were a young Estonian man during this period, you could have found yourself fighting for either side in the war. Indeed, brothers and friends ended up on opposite sides despite not really supporting either one.

This year, two countries, Estonia and Finland, entered films dealing with this period. The Estonian entry, 1944, which set domestic box-office records, is a war epic complete with realistic battle scenes and protagonists who are struggling with their roles as soldiers and Estonians.

The Fencer is inspired by (rather than based on) the life of Endel Nelis, a champion fencer who ended up on the German side of World War II. Once the Soviets regained control of Estonia, such "pro-Nazi" Estonians were considered suspect, if not full-blown "enemies of the state."

In the film, seven years after the end of the war, Nelis flees the big-city, where he is wanted by the authorities, and lands a job as the physical education instructor in a small, backwater town in Estonia. When one of the students spots him thrusting with a sword, she asks him to teach the children fencing. Of course they have no equipment, so he leads them into the forest to create mock weapons out of tree branches. The low-level Communist hack in charge of the school considers fencing too elitist a sport for the proletariat, feels threatened by Nelis' popularity and sets out to ruin him. The rest of the film follows the standard inspiring sports teacher conventions with a love interest thrown in. But it is particularly well-made and earned a Golden Globe nomination. And I did enjoy the drinks.

Finally, I would like to make note of two personal post-screening highlights. My most unexpected experience viewing the Academy Awards entries from 75 nations this year came after a screening of the Turkish film, Sivas, when I went to dinner with the director and others...and found myself discussing President Obama's policy in Syria with actress Jacqueline Bisset. She supported his initiatives; I didn't.

After watching the entry from Albania, Bota, I was able to relate to the director, Iris Elezi, my experience visiting her country two weeks after the fall of communism. One day my guide, a young university student of filmmaking, showed up distraught because his girlfriend, deciding that making films was not a financially promising vocation, dumped him for another man who had found a job as a waiter in Germany. I asked Elezi if now, 23 years later, it was possible to make a living as a filmmaker in Albania. It took her about two seconds to answer emphatically, "No." So, sad to say, I guess the young lady in question did make a good decision after all.