I’ve been covering Best Foreign Film for Awards Daily for several years now, and every year I experience the same pattern. First there is disdain over a film I loved not making the top 5, only to be replaced by the joy of discovery of a film or films I might not have seen had the Academy not nominated them. This year, I was quite bent out of shape when Paul Verhoeven’s “Elle” was left off the short list, but past experience has shown me to be patient, watch the nominated films, and enjoy the process. That’s how I discovered films such as “The Milk of Sorrow,” “Wild Tales” and “Embrace the Serpent” after all.
There is something else, however, hovering over this year’s Oscar race. Something that goes beyond campaigning and snubs, and that is the state of our world. I have found it difficult to express much of what I’ve been feeling since November of last year, sometimes hiding in the glitz of Hollywood and awards season while I have watched my peers delve bravely and full heartedly into politics and activism.
Watching the five nominated foreign films and talking to the directors has actually been the best means for me to look at the world around me, and that is a beautiful thing. Because since I was twelve, cinema has been my escape, and as I have gotten older, a barometer for my truth. So, I did what I do, and here is what I learned.
The first of the nominated films that I saw was “Toni Erdmann.” When it premiered at Cannes it was positioned as the frontrunner for Best Foreign Film, although it lost the Palme d’Or and the Grand Prix to “I, Daniel Blake” and “It’s Only the End of the World” respectively, although it did win the FIPRESCI (International Federation of Film Critics) prize.
On the surface “Toni Erdmann” is a story about a father and a daughter, but this dark comedy is so much more than that. Ines, played remarkably by Sandra Huller, is a business consultant involved in the outsourcing of employees in an oil company. Watching Ines navigate this process gives us a birds eye view of an indifference toward the human element of this trade as well as an idea of what it is like for a woman working in a man’s world, wielding and negotiating power not only over the men/women at work but also in a remarkable sex scene that is quite daring in its realism.
But at the heart of Erdman is the relationship between Ines and her Dad, Winfried, aka: Toni Erdmann, (played by Peter Simonischek). On my 2nd viewing to prepare for my interview with director Maren Ade, I struggled letting go of the characters as I had really fallen in love with them by the end of the movie. I asked Ade if she had a similar struggle, and she told me that considering Winfried is somewhat based on her own father, “how does one escape from your own family?”
The next film I watched was Asghar Farhadi’s “The Salesman.” Farhadi won this category back in 2012 for the brilliant “A Separation.” Somehow between the film’s premiere at Cannes and when I finally caught up with it, I missed out on the fact that the salesman of the title refers to Willy Loman of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman.” I couldn’t wait to discuss Farhadi’s connection to this seminal piece of American theatre and how he spectacularly paralleled the journeys of Willy and his wife Linda to Emad and Rana. The film opens with Emad and Rana’s home falling victim to destruction leading them to relocate to a building owned by a co-actor in a production of “Death of a Salesman” in which both Emad and Rana star. The apartment’s previous tenant might have been a prostitute (another parallel to Miller’s work) who may or may not have been the target of a vicious attack on Rana when Emad isn’t at home. Emad’s search for his wife’s attacker and its effect on the relationship with those around him, and his wife, are intertwined with scenes from “Death of a Salesman” in a subtle, very effective way, while also delving into Iranian culture, leading to a stunning final act that I had to watch twice. If anything is going to beat “Toni Erdmann,” I’m guessing this will be this film. It also has an “Oscar story” with Farhadi not attending the Oscars in protest of our political climate. I would like to think that is why Farhadi chose in the end not to speak with me.
The most entertaining of the bunch very well might be the Swedish entry, “A Man Called Ove” directed by Hannes Holm, adapted from the beloved book of the same name. Having lost his wife and forced into early retirement, Ove, who has reached what he believes to be the end of his line, ready to meet his departed love, has his life shaken when a young couple moves in next door, allowing him more time to examine his life and relationships, with not only his wife but the “whiteshirts” who have burdened him along the way.
“Ove” is told in such a delicate way, with themes ranging from race, sexuality, class division, etc. Not merely a story about an angry old man next door, it also has at its core a tender love story, told through flashbacks. When I spoke with Hannes shortly after he attended the Academy nominees luncheon he told me that “the good movies surprise you, and and it was the love story in the book that surprised me.” We also discussed a bit about the challenges of adapting a book, which led to one of the most profound explanations I have ever heard about the adaptation process.
“I hadn’t adapted one novel in my life before…and no one told me how to do it. It was the 3rd day when I started to write the screenplay…it just came to me that if you read a book and you tell the story of the book you don’t tell the story from the book you tell your story, your version of the book’s story.”
The final two films were the biggest surprises for me.
After World War II, German POW boys were sent to dismantle over 1.5 million landmines along the coast of Denmark. Coming from British command, but with no objections from the Danish administration, this has been a touchy subject for not only the Danish people, but all of post WWII Europe. Director Martin Zandvliet crafts a beautiful story with “Land of Mine,” that perfectly walks the fine line of empathy for everyone involved and the understanding of the roles the boys played prior to capture. As we watch Sgt. Rasmussen (played by Roland Moller) begin to empathize with the boys, our own eyes soften toward them.
I asked Martin how he was able to get such remarkable performances from actors both inexperienced and young (particularly a fantastic turn from Louis Hoffman as Sebastian), and he told me “I don’t really think I have tricks up my sleeve. What I do is make them feel safe. They have a feeling that they can rely on me, trust me and it’s ok to break down. It took away the pressure to make them feel I would always catch them.”
The final film that I watched was “Tanna,” the Australian-Vanuatuan entry. This is a remarkably shot movie which began its awards journey at Venice, winning the Audience Award. Co-directed by Martin Butler and Bentley Dean and shot by Dean, this film is both intimate and grand in its telling of the Romeo and Juliet style love story of Wawa and Dain, living in a time of intertribal war. We see the passion of their love in a remarkable scene set against an erupting volcano as they decide whether or not, despite Wawa being betrothed as part of a peace deal, to run away, risking pursuit by enemy warriors. The ending of this true story is bittersweet, but incredibly hopeful as the result of Wawa and Dain’s ultimate decision leads to a resolution between the tribes that is in tact to this day.
This year in particular I have taken so much from the five nominated foreign films, as well as the conversations I had with the directors. I almost never discuss the fact that I’m an actor when it comes to Oscarwatching interviews, but it still informs my work and the questions I ask and, in turn, the answers/revelations I receive.
For example, Hannes Holm, Maren Ade and Martin Zandvliet all told me that so much of their film’s success is in the casting process. “With every movie, I direct less and less and less,” said Holm, allowing the actors he casts to do what they know how to do.
A fascinating thing I learned from Maren Ade is that she wrote specific scenes for the audition in order to keep the film’s actual scenes alive. And once rehearsal began she didn’t touch the script very much at all because the rehearsal was more about getting a connection to “what is under” the material.
With Martin, I felt led to tell him that I had a background in film, which allowed us to have a remarkable conversation about how most directors begin filming scenes with the wide shot, almost always feeling a need to “move in.” But he likes to begin in close, capturing the emotion at its most raw.
As fantastic as these tidbits are, it still always comes back to the films themselves and how they resonate with me in this present moment. The whiteshirts v/s the rest of us. The price of war, particularly when it comes to children, and the struggle for peace even as life continually comes toward us always on its own terms.